When the RORO Liners Came to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao

The ROROs (Roll-on, Roll-off ships) first came to the Philippines at the end of the 1970’s and in the 1980’s it began to multiply in Luzon and the Visayas. From the moment the ROROs arrived it was already obvious that they were superior to the cruiser ships and that a new paradigm has arrived and the cruiser ships were already headed to obsolescence. However, the ROROs did not multiply fast in general in the 1980’s because it was a decade of great economic and political crises when the value of the peso plunged and inflation was unchecked. At the height of the crisis of the 1980’s almost no loans were available, few foreign currency was available (that it even lead to the creation of the “Binondo central bank) and the interest rates were skyhigh that it was almost suicide to take a loan especially at foreign-denominated one.

That difficulty was reflected in that the first RORO liners and overnight ferries in the country acquired at the peak of this crisis up to 1986 were small and were generally just in the 60 to 70-meter length class only and barely over 1,000 gross tons. Among the examples of those were the Surigao Princess, Cagayan Princess, Boholana Princess, Sta. Maria (of Nenaco and not Viva Shipping Lines), the Viva Sta. Maria and Marian Queen of Viva Shipping Lines and the many ROROs acquired by Carlos A. Gothong Lines like the Dona Lili, Don Calvino, Dona Josefina, Don Benjamin, Dona Casandra, Dona Cristina and the third Sweet Home of Sweet Lines. The notable exceptions in this period were the Sweet RORO and Sweet RORO 2 of Sweet Lines and the Sta. Florentina of Negros Navigation but the three were not really that big (as in 110 to 120 meters LOA). Many liners shipping companies did not bother to purchase a RORO ship in this period like William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping, Lorenzo Shipping, Escano Lines and the moribund Compania Maritima, the erstwhile biggest passenger shipping company.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

However, if Luzon, the Visayas and Northern Mindanao already had RORO ships in this period described, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao did not see a RORO liner until 1988 when Sulpicio Lines fielded the Cotabato Princess in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. fielded the Asia Korea (the latter Asia Hongkong and the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) on the Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and that RORO ship is actually 82.8 meters in length which is about the size of small liners then like the Our Lady of Guadalupe which arrived in 1986 for Carlos A. Gothong Lines and was 89.7 meters in length. With the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1986 and the general bettering of the economic conditions starting in 1987 the RORO ships being purchased were beginning to get bigger and more many as the difficulty of lending from banks and the interest rates eased and there was new economic optimism.

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Asia Korea (TASLI photo)

The fielding of RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao was not fast at first. In 1989, the Zamboanga City of William Lines came when it did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route before replacing their burned (in the shipyard) Manila City in the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route. In 1992, the big but slow Maynilad of the William Lines came and replaced the Zamboanga City in that route and the Zamboanga City was given the Manila-Iloilo-Cotabato-General Santos City route instead to battle the Cotabato Princess (with she bypassing Zamboanga port her travel time to Cotabato was shorter).

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Maynilad (Photo credits: William Lines and Britz Salih)

Sulpicio Lines only fielded their second RORO liner in Southern Mindanao when the Manila Princess came in 1992 to replace their cruiser Davao Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. Actually during that time the only shipping companies with passenger service still remaining to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao were Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. Such was the effect of the political and economic crises of the 1980’s and the coming of the container ships. Among those who quit Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao then in passenger shipping were Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping and Lorenzo Shipping.

The slowness of the coming of the RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao can be counted this way. In 1992, four years after the first coming of the RORO liners, the southernmost portion of the country only had 4 RORO liners, the Manila Princess and Cotabato Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Maynilad and Zamboanga City of William Lines (Sweet Lines only had the cruiser Sweet Glory in the route). Well, actually there were not that many liners here compared to the Visayas and Northern Mindanao as most cargo in the region was actually carried by the container ships which outnumber the RORO liners. However, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao RORO liners were generally bigger than the Visayas and Northern Mindanao RORO liners, on the average.

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Princess of the Pacific (Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Britz Salih)

It was starting in 1993 that fielding of RORO liners to the southernmost part of the country accelerated. More RORO liners were actually coming in the country because of the incentives laid by President Fidel V. Ramos. The Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines came and did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route. Aboitiz Shipping came back to Southern Mindanao when they fielded the SuperFerry 1 in the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route and their SuperFerry 3 did the Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route to the protest of William Lines in the latter which when not resolved resulted in the withdrawal of the liner Zamboanga City and subsequent reassignment of that ship to the Puerto Princesa route. Meanwhile, the super-big former flagship of Sulpicio Lines, the Filipina Princess replaced the Manila Princess in its route and this ship was subsequently assigned to the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route to compete with the slow but bigger Maynilad.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

In 1994, the lengthened and rebuilt Sugbu which became the Mabuhay 3 of William Lines did the Manila-Davao-Dadiangas route. In 1995, just before the merger that produced WG&A no more further RORO liners came but Manila Princess was plagued by unreliability and was just being used as a reserve ship.

When WG&A started sailing in 1996 there were heavy changes to the schedules and routes. Early in the merger, the Maynilad was doing the Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato route and SuperFerry 3 was assigned her old Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. The Dona Virginia was fielded to the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and competing head-on with the Princess of the Pacific but she was only a half-RORO, half-cruiser. The SuperFerry 6 was doing the Manila-Surigao-Davao route in contest with the Filipina Princess. And the SuperFerry 1 was doing her old Manila-Iloilo-General Santos City-Davao route. There were more RORO liners now and RORO liners that have not been previously assigned to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao reached ports here like the Our Lady of Akita of Gothong Lines which became SuperFerry 6 and the old flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was exciting because new ships coming are exciting and because it is a new experience for the passengers.

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SuperFerry 3 by Chief Ray Smith

Along the years there were constant adjustments in the routes and fielding of ships of WG&A as more RORO liners came to their fleet and some liners were disposed off or were lost. Later, WG&A also turned into pairing of ships to do the same route. But it would be hard to mention here all the WG&A routes and schedules as it often changed and I will just risk accusations of inaccuracies and listing many by month will be too tedious.

There was one more change in the area when Negros Navigation invaded Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao in their desire to become a national liner company and compete toe-to-toe with WG&A and Sulpicio Lines. The San Ezekiel Moreno was assigned the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos route and competing against the Princess of the Pacific. And the San Lorenzo Ruiz (theirs and not the Viva Shipping Lines ship) was fielded to the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route in competition then with the SuperFerry 1/SuperFerry 8/SuperFerry 10 pairing.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz by Britz Salih

In the new millennium the RORO liners slowly disappeared from Southern Mindanao and almost too in Zamboanga. Passenger shipping slowly but continuously weakened with the onslaught of the budget airlines (and the intermodal bus too from Davao) whose fares were already in parity with the liners. Soon, even the hoi polloi were also taking the planes and a new generation of passengers deemed the liners as too slow and wouldn’t want to spend two-and-a-half days of their lives cocooned in a liner although they are fed free. The RORO liners soon became for the ship lovers only and for those who feared taking a plane.

In the second decade of the new millennium the Aboitiz Transport System RORO liners to Southern Mindanao disappeared. That was preceded years earlier by the withdrawal of Negros Navigation. Now there are no more liners in Southern Mindanao and in Zamboanga only one liner is left.

Soon RORO liners will just be distant memories in Southern Mindanao.

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The MV Manila City

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

William Lines, from their very start and even when their fleet was not yet big always stressed the Southern Mindanao routes, a stress that was even over that of their stress in Northern Mindanao. They have their reasons and it might be economic. Maybe the political came later. It is known that Mr. William Chiongbian, the owner and founder was for a long time a Congressman of Misamis Occidental and was even Governor. Panguil Bay and Iligan Bay was the only consistent stress of William Lines in Northern Mindanao. In Southern Mindanao his brother James Chiongbian was a Congressman for long time of the southern portion of the old Cotabato province.

In Southern Mindanao, for decades William Lines maintained the Manila-Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Zamboanga-Dadiangas-Davao route and even early the company devoted six ships of their fleet in that route to maintain a thrice a week departure from Manila. Even when the former passenger-cargo ships from Europe arrived, William Lines simply plugged it in those routes in place of the former ex-”FS” ships. Later, that basic route had variations like dropping Tagbilaran in one or two of the schedules or inserting Iligan in that schedule or going first to Davao than Dadiangas.

When the era of fast cruiser liners arrived with only one intermediate port in the route, William Lines acquired and fielded the fast cruiser MV Manila City in the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route in 1976. This was actually the second MV Manila City in the Wiliam Lines fleet after the first MV Manila City which was an ex-”FS” ship. Later the second MV Manila City dropped anchor in General Santos City on the way back to Manila. Gensan was the base of Mr. James Chiongbian and the passenger and cargo of Gensan are too big to ignore when it was just on the way.

The MV Manila City was first in competition with the fast cruiser liner MV Dona Ana (later MV Dona Marilyn) of Sulpicio Lines which was augmented later by the fast cruisers MV Don Enrique (later MV Davao Princess and MV Iloilo Princess) and MV Don Eusebio (later MV Dipolog Princess) in 1978. These Sulpicio ships were doing the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. The MV Manila City was faster but she was doing the longer route. All of them were capable of completing the whole route in just a week. Later, in 1979, the Dona Ana was pulled out from the Davao route and she was placed in the twice a week Manila-Cebu route when the flagship of Sulpicio Lines, the MV Don Sulpicio was hit by fire near Batangas while on a voyage.

For 15 long years from 1976 until her death in 1991, the MV Manila City was the only fast cruiser of William Lines in the Southern Mindanao route and she had to contend with the MV Don Enrique and MV Don Eusebio of Sulpicio Lines. For most of this period the MV Manila City was augmented by the other cruisers of William Lines including the former passenger-cargo ships from Europe. Two of them, however, the MV Davao City and MV Zamboanga tried a direct route to Davao. The MV Dumaguete and MV General Santos City also did a Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route. The late 1970’s was no longer an era of too many intermediate ports. Even Sulpicio Lines was also in this new trend in this era.

From 1979, however, William Lines also joined the new paradigm and bandwagon which was containerization. The new container ships made direct sailings with no intermediate ports like a direct route to Davao or General Santos City. With that there was less need to send passenger-cargo ships to Southern Mindanao. However, the MV Manila City continued on its old route and sailed faithfully.

The MV Manila City was a ship built in 1970 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in its main yard in Shimonoseki, Japan. Her original name was MV Nihon Maru. She was young when she was sold to William Lines in 1976 at only 6 years of age and use. Her former owner in Japan was Mitsubishi Shintaku Ginko and her ID was IMO 7005798.

The ship’s external measurements were 106.3 meters by 14.0 meters by 6.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage was 2,998 tons. She had a maximum speed of 20.5 knots when new from her twin Mitsubishi engines that totaled 8,800 horsepower (this was high at its time and actually the highest for the local liners from 1976 to 1980). So she was actually bigger and as fast the flagship MV Cebu City of William Lines. She was dubbed as the “Sultan of the Sea” by William Lines.

In the Philippines, the MV Manila City had a gross tonnage of 2,961 with a net tonnage of 1,648. The ship had the highest gross tonnage in the William Lines fleet before the arrival of the MV Dona Virginia. She had a passenger capacity of 1,388 which is again higher than the flagship MV Cebu City. The ship was billed as fully air-conditioned. It seems in the 1970’s this was already the standard for a luxury liner (of course they also touted the passenger service and the food plus the entertainment).

As advertised:”The ship is equipped with the latest navigational and life-saving equipment including self-lighting lamps, an automatic signal transmitter and the latest in compasses and radars. It is fully automated, with the engine room controlled from the bridges.” (From Times Journal, September 24, 1976).

The ship had a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She had two masts, two side funnels and three passenger decks. She had an observation deck atop her bridge which is accessible by passengers. Her loading capacity in Deadweight Tons was 3,766 tons which was higher than the DWT of MV Cebu City.

The MV Manila’s first schedule was:

LV Manila, Wednesday 10AM
AR Zamboanga Thursday 2 PM (18.3 knots average speed)
LV Zamboanga Thursday 12 MN
AR Davao Friday 5 PM (18.3 knots average speed)
LV Davao Saturday 9 PM
AR Zamboanga Sunday 2 PM
LV Zamboanga Sunday 12 MN
AR Manila Tuesday 4 AM

In later years, the departure of MV Manila City from North Harbor changed. At one time she also dropped anchor in Odiongan before proceeding to Zamboanga. This was in the late 1980’s when William Lines was maximizing its routes by dropping by on additional ports in Panay and Romblon.

On February 16, 1991, the MV Manila City was on drydock in Cebu Shipyard Engineering Works (CSEW) in Mactan island. While in a graving dock and hot works were being done on the ship by a sub-contractor, the ship caught fire. The next day the ship sank and was declared beyond economic salvage and repair. The vessel was insured was P45,000.000 (in 1991 currency). She was broken on January 1992.

The MV Manila City was replaced initially by the MV Zamboanga City, a RORO liner, in her route. In 1992, her replacement vessel, the MV Maynilad which was a much bigger vessel came. However, this ship, though beautiful and well-appointed was a disappointment in speed since she can only do 15 knots when new which was significantly below the speed of the vessel she replaced. She can also do the route in also one weak, though.

The MV Manila City was a good ship. It is just too bad she did not last long like her contemporaries in the Southern Mindanao route.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

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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.

The Flagship Wars in the Manila-Cebu Route

In the first 15 years after World War II there was not much of what was later called “the flagship wars”. How can there be flagship wars when it was an ex-”FS” ship battling another ex-”FS” ship? The ex-“FS” ship were just small World War II surplus ships from the US Navy that were slow and lumbering just like the freighters. And with the basicness of the ex-”FS” ships, there was really no “luxury” to talk about when there was no airconditioning, no real amenities, no entertainment (unless one brings out a guitar and croons), no true lounges or even enough space to walk about. There were bigger ships like the Type C1-M-AV1 which were also war surplus ships from the US Navy but they were also basic ships and also lack speed (both the two mentioned types only sail at about 11 knots which was also the sailing speed of the general cargo ships). As general rule, cargo ships converted for passenger use do not produce luxury liners. If ever, it would be the former refrigerated cargo ships that can be made into luxury liners or else the best is to buy former luxury liners from Europe.

The Manila-Cebu route was and is still the premier shipping route in the Philippines. This route connects the primary metropolis and manufacturing center to the secondary metropolis and manufacturing center of the country. Hence, the movement of people and goods would be highest in this route. If there is a next premier route it would be the Manila-Iloilo route. The Manila-Cebu route is also the gateway to the routes to Northern Mindanao while the Manila-Iloilo route is the gateway to the routes to Western Mindanao and Southern Mindanao.

The early postwar liners calling on Cebu did not have an exclusive route to Cebu much like the prewar liners. From Cebu they will still go to Northern Mindanao ports or even sail to Southern Mindanao ports via Zamboanga. It was not unusual then for liners to have five ports of call in a voyage. That was why complete voyages then to Cebu and Northern Mindanao took one week and complete voyages to Cebu and Southern Mindanao took two weeks. In the latter a liner might have seven ports of call. As they say, “the better to pack ’em in.”

When luxury liners first came they funnily have the code “airconditioned” (airconditioning was rare then). And the word “luxury” also began to be bandied about. In terms of speed they were significantly better than the basic ex-”FS” ships and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. Some of the earliest local liners were the trio from Everett Steamship being sailed by Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), the Elcano, Legaspi and Cagayan de Oro which all came in 1955, the Luzon (1959) and Visayas (1963) of Compania Maritima which were doing dual local and foreign routes, the General Roxas (1960) and General del Pilar (1961) of General Shipping Corp., the President Quezon (1960) of Philippine President Lines (which became the Quezon of Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 and later the Pioneer Iloilo of the same company in 1965), the Governor B. Lopez (1961) of Southern Lines Inc., the Fatima of Escano Lines (1964).

If one will notice, there is no mention here of a ship of Go Thong & Co. or William Lines and definitely there is no error in the list. In that roost, the President Quezon ruled in speed department at 18 knots and the next fastest to her sailed at only 16 knots with the tailender at 12 knots which was just about the same as the ex-”FS” ships and the ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. That was the picture of the luxury ship sector of the Philippines two decades after World War II.

In that era, there was no “flagship wars” as understood a decade later. Maybe if the better ships were all doing long routes it will be a wonder where and how they will compete. This is especially true for the luxury liners sailing to Cebu and then proceeding to many southern ports up to Davao. I noticed the tight “flagship wars” started only when there were already true fast cruisers and when the route was exclusively limited to Manila-Cebu.

It was Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines, a newcomer in liner shipping which started the true “flagship wars” in 1970. They were able to acquire that ship which was a luxury liner even in Europe and she was really fast. When she came she became the new postwar benchmark in speed at 20 knots and beating handsomely all the other contenders by at least 2 knots. Maybe she only did the Manila-Cebu route because she had to stress the capture of passengers because she can’t take in a significant amount of cargo. And with her accommodations all-airconditioned that was really more fit for the Manila-Cebu route which not only had more sector passengers and the better-off passengers were also there including the Cebu and Central Visayas rich who were afraid to take planes then. With such a kind of ship Sweet Lines really had to stress in ads her speed, her amenities and her brand of passenger service to capture more passengers.

She was very successful in that strategy and her repute spread far and wide and she earned many praises. It was really a paradigm change in how to do sailing and maybe that was a little too much for the older shipping companies to swallow the noise and swagger of the newcomer. William Lines had a brand-new ship, the Misamis Occidental in the same year she was fielded but she was clearly outmatched by the Sweet Faith because maybe when they finalized the design of the ship they did not see Sweet Faith coming to upset the chart.

The biggest shipping company then, the Compania Maritima, which had the resources to compete did not react and continued their stress on the route passing through Cebu before sailing for Western and Southern Mindanao up to Davao. That was also the response (or lack of response) and strategy of the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Co. which would be later known as Aboitiz Shipping Corp. and besides their luxury trio were already 15 years and outmatched and so maybe they thought they really have no option at all except to not really compete. Meanwhile, Escano Line’s priority was not really Cebu at all, its ships cannot really compete as they did not stress speed when they ordered their brand-new ships. Go Thong & Co. might have been too busy in their European expansion through Universal Shipping and maybe they thought getting all the copra in all the ports possible made more sense (they had lots of small ships for that purpose). General Shipping Corp. and Southern Lines Inc. were also gone and Galaxy Lines, the successor to the Philippine Pioneer Lines was also near to floundering already. Negros Navigation Company, meanwhile, was not competing in the Cebu route and it is in the Manila-Iloilo route where they were flexing the muscles of their brand-new liners.

For two years until 1972 Sweet Faith ruled the Manila-Cebu route. It will be up to a shipping company which long relied solely on ex-”FS” ships (until 1966) to challenge Sweet Faith with their upcoming newbuilding which will turn out to be the liner Cebu City. A sister ship of the liner Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company, she was fitted with bigger engines. Since Don Juan can only do 19 knots maybe they decided on bigger engines to be able to compete with the 20 knots of Sweet Faith. Cebu City came in 1972 that began the battle royale of the two flagships whose intensity passed the two ships to shipping folklore long after both ships were gone (only the millennials would not have heard of their battles).

In 1973, the liner Sweet Home of Sweet Lines arrived to form a “tag team” to battle Cebu City. She was not as fast as the two at 18 knots but she was bigger and as luxurious as the Sweet Faith because she was already a luxury ship in Europe when she was still the known as the Caralis.

In 1975, Sulpicio Lines joined the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” when they acquired the second Don Sulpicio from RKK in Japan. Unlike their previous ships this liner had no cargo ship origins. A fast cruiser at 18 knots and with accommodations much like the Cebu City she was also a legit contender. In this wars it is not only speed that was advertised but also punctuality of departures. That is aside from the food, the amenities and the passenger service.

In 1976, the newly-arrived Dona Ana also joined this fray. She was a sister ship of Don Sulpicio but faster at 19 knots and newer. However, she was a Manila-Cebu-Davao ship and she only competed in the Manila-Cebu leg as a “tag team” too with the second Don Sulpicio. Dona Ana also started a new paradigm on her own, the fast cruiser to Davao which she can do in only three days compared to nearly a week of the others. The flagship of Compania Maritima, the liner Filipinas was forced to respond by cutting ports of call and announcing they will sail the Davao route in only 4 days. In a sense this was also a “flagship war”. Later, the Dona Ana became a replacement flagship in the Manila-Cebu route when Don Sulpicio was hit by a bad fire in 1979 and her repairs took two years. By that time, it was another new fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines, the Don Enrique (later the Davao Princess) that was battling the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima in the Davao route along with the liner Manila City of William Lines [there will be a future article on these Manila-Davao fast cruiser battles].

Sweet Faith and Sweet Home lasted just less than a decade in the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” because they were already old ships when they first came here. Sweet Home quit earlier about 1978 and Sweet Faith quit in 1980. However, even before she quit, the new flagship of William Lines, the Dona Virginia has already arrived. She will be linked in an epic battle not with a flagship of Sweet Lines but with a flagship of Sulpicio Lines. This liner is the Philippine Princess which came in 1981. Dona Virginia had the upperhand as she was faster, bigger and more beautiful-looking and she ruled the Manila-Cebu route. Both were exclusively Manila-Cebu ferries and like those that came in the 1970s they had no cargo ship origins. In this decade Compania Maritima was no longer in the running as they no longer had new ship acquisitions and in fact they quit when the financial and political crises spawned by the Ninoy Aquino assassination broke out.

After an interregnum of two years without a dedicated Manila-Cebu liner, Sweet Lines brought out their new challenger, the luxurious Sweet RORO but she was smaller and her speed was slightly inferior to the flagships of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines. However, she was as luxurious if not more so and she trumpeted an all-airconditioned accommodations and she was a true RORO which was the new type and paradigm that was gaining already. Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corp. gave up all semblance of a fight and just concentrated in container shipping. The Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping Corp. also withdrew from the Cebu route for practical purposes. Escano Lines were also not buying ships like Aboitiz Shipping and also were not contenders. Negros Navigation Company, like before was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

Suddenly, in 1988, Sulpicio Lines did what was equivalent to exploding a grenade in the competition. They were able to acquire the Filipina Princess which broke all local records in size and speed. It was far bigger and far faster than the Dona Virginia of William Lines and was a true RORO. Even though William Lines was able to acquire the RORO liner Sugbu in 1990, she was not a bigger or a faster ship than the Dona Virginia she was replacing as flagship. To rub salt on wound, in the same year Sulpicio Lines also acquired the Cotabato Princess and the Nasipit Princess which were also bigger than the Dona Virginia (and Sugbu) though not as fast. So for few years, in terms of size, Sulpicio Lines possessed the No. 1, 2 and 3 position in terms of ship size.

As to the others, in 1987, Sweet Lines was able to acquire the Sweet Baby but she was not as big as the William Lines and Sulpicio flagships nor can she match them really in speed. Soon, Escano Lines would be quitting liner shipping. There was really a big “consolidation” in the liner shipping industry, a euphemism to cover the fact that a lot of liner shipping companies sank in that horrendous decade for shipping that was the 1980’s. Again, Negros Navigation Company was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

With this “consolidation” it just became a mano-a-mano between Sulpicio Lines and William Lines in the Manila-Cebu route with the others reduced more or less to bystanders….

[There is a sequel to this describing the “flagship wars” of the 1990’s.]