When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

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One of the Magic Elixirs of William Lines and Carlos A. Gothong & Co.

The term “magic elixir” refers to a potion that gives one powers and in modern usage it refers to a sort of magic that was the reason for an entity to rise. In this article I am not referring to something illegal but to one of the reasons for the rise of two of the most storied shipping companies of the Philippines where in their peak were contending for the bragging rights of being the biggest shipping company in the country.

Historically, the Chinese mestizo shipping companies were not as blessed as the Spanish mestizo shipping companies which antedated them in the business. The latter not only had a head start but they also possessed powerful political connections and that was very important then in getting loans from the Philippine National Bank (PNB) which dominated commercial banking then as there was almost no other commercial bank big enough in that time able to finance acquisition of ships. It was also crucial in getting ships from the National Development Corporation and earlier in getting surplus ex-”FS” ships from the Rehabilitation Finance Commission that was awarded as war compensation by the US Government.

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A 1950 ad of William Lines (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Of the two companies, William Lines had an earlier start and it was also blessed by political connections – the founder of the company, William Chiongbian happened to be a powerful Congressman who in his run for the Senator missed by one just slot (and his brother was a Congressman too at the same time but in another province). Carlos A. Gothong & Co. had to start from the bottom as it began almost a decade later than William Lines in liner shipping. But later it was blessed by a good strategic relationship with Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra concern then when copra was skyrocketing to being the Number 1 cash commodity and export commodity of the country.

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The first liner of Gothong & Co. (Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen)

In the national liner scene, after its restart right after the end of the Pacific War, the strongest after a generation were the shipping companies that had routes to Southern Mindanao. Left behind were the shipping companies that just concentrated in the Visayas routes like Southern Lines, General Shipping, Philippine President Lines/Philippine Pioneer Lines/Galaxy Lines and other smaller shipping companies to Eastern Visayas, Bicol and the near routes to Mindoro, northern Panay and Palawan. Actually, in my totem pole of national liner companies in 1972, the Top 5 — Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co., Aboitiz Shipping+PSNC, William Lines and Sweet Lines — all have routes to Southern Mindanao.

What made Southern Mindanao the “magic elixir” of William Lines and Gothong & Co. when the latter was not even a liner company in the latter half of the 1940’s and William Lines was behind many shipping companies that preceded them?

In business, there is nothing better barring the illegal than a customer base that simply keeps growing and growing. And that was what Mindanao then was to the shipping companies Southern Mindanao. Before the war the population of Southern Mindanao was small and was practically composed by natives. That was before the government encouraged and assisted the resettlement of people from other parts of the Philippines to resolve what was called then as the “population pressure” (rapidly growing population in an agricultural economy with not enough land anymore to be divided into the next generation and there were no contraceptives yet then and the average number of children was five).

Northern Mindanao after the war already had Visayan migrants as it was just near the Visayas and the Spaniards was able to establish a strong foothold there even in the 19th century. But Southern Mindanao almost had no transplanted population and it is this part of the Philippines that experienced the greatest population boom after the war with what was called by the Moro National Liberation Front as the “colonization” of Mindanao (well, even some politician used the word “colonization” before that became politically incorrect). Where before in the 1948 Census the transplanted population was just a minority in Mindanao, in the 1960 Census the natives suddenly realized they were already the new minority and in the 1970 Census they saw they were beginning to get marginalized (Sultans and Datus who were once Mayors were even beginning to lose the elections).

This population boom, the opening of land for cultivation and the consequent exploitation of the natural resources of Mindanao needed transport and it was not by air (and not by road definitely) but by ship. And by this all shipping companies that were plying the Southern Mindanao routes benefited a lot. Of course shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao also benefited but not to the same extent as the Southern Mindanao shipping companies. And anyway the shipping companies serving Southern Mindanao were the same shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao (with exception of Escano Lines which has also routes to Northern Mindanao but not Southern Mindanao) and so the benefit of those serving Southern Mindanao were double.

If we analyze the biggest shipping company then which was Compania Maritima, most of its ships were assigned to Southern Mindanao. That was also true for the liners of Gothong & Co. (this company has a lot of cargo-passenger ships then to gather the copra for Lu Do and Lu Ym) and William Lines (which assigned 3/4 of its ships in Southern Mindanao early and Gothong & Co. of to 80% in 1967).

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One will wonder how this small ex-“FS” ship sails all the way to Davao

Although William Lines started ahead of Gothong & Co., the latter vaulted ahead of the former in the 1960’s. I think the reason is William Lines relied too much and too long on the ex-”FS” ships and it was only in 1966 when they acquired other types. Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. acquired ships from Europe earlier and in greater numbers. That does not even include the Type “C1A” ships acquired by Gothong & Co. which were big ships and were really ocean-going plus a lot of small ships the likes of lengthened ex-”F” ships and a host of local-builds. In ports of call, Gothong & Co. simply had too many because of the need to gather the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym which was exporting a lot (and which Gothong & Co. also carried).

For sure, Compania Maritima which was already the Number 1 right after the war also benefited from the growth of Mindanao. However, their subsequent collapse in 1984 at the height of the financial and economic crisis then besetting the country is of another matter. Sulpicio Lines, the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co. also benefited from Mindanao after their creation in 1972 so much so that later it became the biggest shipping company of the country in the 1980’s.

What happened then to the shipping companies started after the war that just concentrated on Visayan routes? Well, by the 1960’s Southern Lines and General Shipping were already gone from the local scene and a few year later Galaxy Lines, successor to Philippine President Lines, the local operation and Philippine Pioneer Lines was also gone. And the smaller shipping companies like Escano Lines, Bisaya Land Transport (this was also a shipping company) were just in the fringe and barely alive in the 1970’s like the shipping companies that just concentrated in Bicol, Samar and northern Panay. That was also the fate of the shipping companies that was concentrating in what is called MIMAROPA today. After the 1970’s practically only batels survived in the last area mentioned.

Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. threatened Compania Maritima for Number 1 before their break-up in 1972. Later with the downward spiral of Compania Maritima, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines battled for Number 1. And when Compania Maritima quit and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation also quit Mindanao, Sulpicio Lines (the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co.) and William Lines further benefited. Actually, no shipping company that did not serve Southern Mindanao ever became one the top shipping companies in the country (that was before a lot of liner companies were culled in the crisis of the 1980’s).

That was the importance of Southern Mindanao for the shipping companies of the country. William Lines and successor of Gothong & Co. Sulpicio Lines ended up the Top 2 in Philippine shipping. Know what? They were the only survivors of the Southern Mindanao routes after all the rest quit (of course, Aboitiz Shipping came back later and there were others in container shipping).

Now, there are no more liners to Southern Mindanao, funny. But, of course, that is another story. The magic elixir dried up?

The Sulpicio Lines Fast Cruiser Liners

Don Sulpicio (Doña Paz) and Doña Ana (Doña Marilyn)

From the collection of John Uy Saulog

In the era of cruiser liners, not only did they get bigger but they also got faster. So they competed not only in amenities and passenger service but also in shorter cruising times and this was valuable not only in the far ports like Davao but also in the likes of Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. With fast cruisers, the travel time to the likes of Davao went down from three-and-a-half days to two-and-a-half days. It also brought down the cruising time to Cebu to less than a day.

The leading shipping company in the local routes Compania Maritima had been the first in fast cruisers with the fielding of “Filipinas” in the 1968 and the “Mindanao” in 1970. Both were capable of 18 knots and that was the reference speed then in that era to be considered “fast”. As expected, the two, one after the other. were fielded in the long Davao route.

William Lines followed suit from 1970 when they ordered the brand-new “Misamis Occidental” that was also capable of 18 knots. This was soon followed by the legendary “Cebu City” which was capable of 20.5 knots and this was assigned to the premier Manila-Cebu route. William Lines then followed up with four more fast cruiser liners and they had the biggest number of ships in that category. William Lines fielded their 20.5-knot “Manila City” to the Davao route.

Sweet Lines did not really have a fast cruiser except for the first “Sweet Faith” which they fielded in the prime Manila-Cebu route in a fierce competition with William’s “Cebu City”. This liner which arrived from Denmark in 1970 was capable of 20 knots. She had the pair “Sweet Home” (the first) which came in 1973 from Europe too. Sweet Lines dubbed the two as the “Inimitable Pair”. To be able to compete in the long Davao route, what Sweet Lines did was to use the shorter eastern seaboard on the route to Davao. With this tactic, they were also “fast”, so to say.

Negros Navigation also had their share with fast cruiser liners with the “Dona Florentina” and the beautiful “Don Julio”. This was capped by their fastest cruiser then, the “Don Juan” which was capable of 19 knots. A later ship, the “Don Claudio” was also fast at 18.5 knots when she was still in Japan. May I note that the Negros Navigation cruiser liners were not really in direct competition with their counterparts as they were just then in the Western Visayas routes.

The fragments of the Go Thong empire was late in fast cruiser liner segment. Maybe they needed to take stock and consolidate after their split in 1972. Sulpicio Lines entered the fast cruiser liner category just in 1975, the last among the majors which competed in this field. It has to be noted that Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping did not follow in this category and neither did Aboitiz Shipping and Escano Lines. Only Compania Maritima, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines participated in this competition but actually Compania Maritima did not acquire any more liners, fast or not, after acquiring “Mindanao” in 1970 even though they had many hull losses in the succeeding years.

Folio Dona Paz

Created by Jon Uy Saulog

Sulpicio Lines acquired the “Himeyuri Maru” from Ryukyu Kaiun KK, more famously known as RKK Line in 1975. This ship was built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1963. She measured 93.1 meters by 13.6 meters and her cubic volume was 2,602 gross tons. She was powered by a single Niigata engine of 5,500 horsepower and her top speed was 18 knots. Refitted in the Philippines she had a passenger capacity of 1,424. She was given the name “Don Sulpicio” in honor of the founder and she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines (this was the second ship to carry that name in the fleet). In 1981, after a fire and refitting she was renamed the “Dona Paz”, the second to carry that name in the Sulpicio Lines fleet (the first was an ex-FS ship). A fine ship, she was unfortunately associated with great ignominy later.

In 1976, Sulpicio Lines acquired the sister ship of “Himeyuri Maru” from RKK Lines too, the “Otohime Maru” which was also built by Onomichi Zosen in the same yard in Onomichi, Japan three years later in 1966. She had the same Niigata powerplant of 5,500 horsepower. However, she was rated at 19.5 knots. She was 97.6 meters in length, 13.7 meters in breadth with a cubic volume of 2,991 gross tons. This ship was renamed to “Dona Ana” and together with “Don Sulpicio”, Sulpicio Lines called them the “Big Two”. They were used by Sulpicio Lines in fighting for their stake in the primary Manila-Cebu route. Later, they extended the route of “Dona Ana” to Davao. In 1980, “Dona Ana” was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. She held the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of Sulpicio Lines until she was reassigned the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route with the arrival of the “Cotabato Princess”. She held that route until her end.

In 1978, as Sulpicio Lines grew stronger, they acquired from RKK Lines again not one but two ships which were actually sister ships too but bigger than the earlier pair from Ryukyu Kaiun KK. These were the “Tokyo Maru” and the “Okinawa Maru” and again both were built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan. The first ship was built in 1969 and the second one was built in 1973. The “Tokyo Maru” had dimensions of 112.2 meters by 15.2 meters and she had cubic measurement of 3,510 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 6,150 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 18.5 knots. “Okinawa Maru” measured 111.5 meters by 15.2 meters with a cubic volume of 3,800 gross tons. Her engine was a single Mitsubishi-MAN of 7,600 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 19 knots. Incidentally this engine also powered “Cotabato Princess”, “Nasipit Princess”, “SuperFerry 2”, “SuperFerry 5” and “Cagayan Bay 1”.

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Dipolog Princess and Princess of the Caribbean

Tokyo Maru” was renamed to “Don Eusebio” and “Okinawa Maru” was renamed to “Don Enrique”. When the “Princesses” came into the nomenclature of Sulpicio Lines she became the “Davao Princess” in 1987 because she was actually the Davao specialist. Later, she was renamed to “Iloilo Princess” when she was no longer holding that route (“Filipina Princess” supplanted her in 1993). Her local passenger capacity, as refitted was 1,379. Meanwhile, “Don Eusebio” was renamed to “Dipolog Princess”. She was then sailing the Manila-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro-Ozamis route. However, she was not actually calling in Dipolog but in Dapitan port. In her refitting here, her passenger capacity increased to 1,261. Later, she held the Manila-Tagbilaran-Dipolog-Iligan-Cebu route of the company until she was stopped from sailing.

The fifth and last cruiser Sulpicio Lines acquired in this period was the “Naha Maru” which also from RKK Line and she came in 1981. She was bigger than the earlier ships from RKK Line. The ship was built by Onomichi Zosen (again!) in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1972. She measured 130.9 meters by 16.8 meters and she had a cubic measurement of 4,957 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 9,200 horsepower, the same type powering “Dipolog Princess” but with more cylinders. She had top speed of 20 knots when new. She was called as the “Philippine Princess” and she became the Sulpicio Lines flagship which means she held the Manila-Cebu route. For a long time, she and the William Lines’ flagship “Dona Virginia” fought in that route. Refitted here, she had a passenger capacity of 1,633.

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Photo credit: Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

As a footnote, much later, when cruiser liners were no longer in vogue, Sulpicio Lines acquired another fast cruiser liner. This was the “Ogasawara Maru” of Tokai Kisen which was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Shimonoseki, Japan in 1979. She measured 110.5 meters by 15.2 meters and 3,553 gross tons. She was powered by two Mitsubishi engines totalling 11,600 horsepower and her top speed when new was 20.5 knots. She was known as the “Princess of the Caribbean” here and she came in 1997.

Like the William Lines fast cruiser liners, many of these Sulpicio fast cruiser liners also met grim fates (but in general they lasted longer and that is why the PSSS — Philippine Ship Spotters Society have still photos of them). Everybody knows the fate of “Dona Paz” which collided with a tanker in Tablas Strait on December 20, 1987 that resulted in great loss of lives.

The “Dona Marilyn”, meanwhile, foundered in a typhoon off Biliran on October 24, 1988 on her way to Tacloban from Manila. The “Philippine Princess” was hit by fire while refitting in Cebu on December 5, 1997. She was towed to Manila where she was broken up. The “Iloilo Princess” was hit by another fire while also refitting in Cebu on July 4, 2003. She capsized in port and she was broken up, too.

The “Dipolog Princess” was the only survivor of the five. She was among the Sulpicio Lines ships suspended as a consequence of the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars” in a typhoon in June of 2008. She never sailed again and she was just anchored in Mactan Channel and later moored at the Sulpicio wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue, Cebu. Together with the “Princess of the Caribbean” she was sold to China breakers and she was demolished in Xinhui, China by Jiangmen Yinhu Ship Breaking Company on January 2011.

Now, even Sulpicio Lines is no more.

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.

1963-4-29-everett-go-thong

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

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

1979-nov-schedules

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

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

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

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

1978-compania-maritima

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

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

Don Sulpicio, Dona Ana and Don Ricardo

Photo by Jon Uy Saulog

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

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

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MV Don Carlos (Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

THE “PORTS TO NOWHERE”

In the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), “Ports to Nowhere” are ports that have no ships or have no meaningful traffic. In the whole country, there might be 200 or so such ports if useless municipal ports are included. Mar Roxas, by his department’s reckoning counted over a hundred. He counted ports whose meager revenues was not even enough to cover the operational costs. This was what the author of this article meant when he first used the term “ports to nowhere” many years ago even before the creation of PSSS. He equated “ports to nowhere” to ports whose incomes cannot cover the salaries of the personnel, the transportation and communication costs, security costs, electricity and let alone the maintenance of the ports. Usually, these are the ports that have no regular calls. Fishing bancas are not counted as usually they are not charged any docking fees and are just accommodated as a matter of courtesy.

Tubod Port ©Mark Ocul

In the past our towns had municipal ports and it was mainly fishing bancas which used them. In the coastal towns that have no roads then, these ports also hosted passenger-cargo motor boats. Whatever, many municipal ports then were no more than fish landing areas and were not suitable for steel-hulled ships. Most are of pile-type and many have piles made of timber and even the wharf floor is made of wood. Slowly as the ports were modernized concrete piles and wharf were used. Concrete was more durable as they did not rot unlike timber and wood.

Gradually, over time, some ports were extended and usually those ports that have connections to major cities were given priority. Some of these were considered district ports and these were usually deeper and some were sheltered. During the end of the 1960’s, regional ports were declared and they were improved and expanded so they can handle foreign and bigger ships.

Tabaco Port, a regional port ©Dominic San Juan

Ironically, after the build-up of ports, the downward slide of our shipping started. This started with the fall of abaca fiber to nylon fiber. Suddenly one of our major export crops fell and once upon a time this was the most major crop being traded from the 1880s up to the 1950’s. This was followed by the downturn in the ‘70s of the export of metallic ores due to the emergence of the plastic industry. In the same decade the trade and exploitation of our forests declined because the precipitous fall of our forest cover already showed its effects. Then in the early 1980’s, the trade and export of copra and coconut oil began to decline. Substitute edible oils appeared in the world market and coconut oil mills sprouted in the regions and ironically it was the government which pushed for this. So, one after another, the major crops being shipped declined.

The final nail came in the 1980’s with the policy that any shortfall in cereals (as in rice and corn) will simply be imported and in sufficient quantities so that the price can be depressed or brought down. This policy was even extended to the manufacture of animal feeds and so manufacturers can just import corn, soybeans and green peas. Suddenly, crops being traded between the regions were supplanted by imports being brought by foreign ships direct to regional and private ports ports and bypassing Manila entirely.

Nasico Eagle ©Mike Baylon

When the instant snack sector boomed in the 1980s local shipping did not benefit. This is so because the ingredients for the instant snack were coming direct from abroad to the regional ports. The snacks ingredients were actually imported animal feeds like yellow corn, powdered potato and greens peas. They can import those for “chicheria” use here since the animal food grade of the US for these commodities is even higher than our local grade, ironically. All of these factors depressed shipping and this sector never fully recovered after the ravages of the great financial crisis of the 1980’s.
With the decline of our commodities, the so-many foreign shipping companies that have ships calling in our country slowly pulled out from the 1980’s. The log ships and ore ships also stopped calling in the same decade. What replaced that in effect was our export of workers and domestic helpers but they ride the planes and not the cargo ships.


1979 Manila Bulletin Shipping Schedule ©Mike Baylon

The final nail in the coffin for shipping was the emerging dominance of the intermodal transport system especially with the arrival of the surplus and wing van trucks in the 1990’s. This was coupled with incentives which made it easy for bus operators to acquire new units. This was amplified by the great drive of industrialist Pepito Alvarez who pushed new buses with financing to the operators. Meanwhile, incentives were also laid out for shipping and many used this to acquire short-distance ROROs. And so suddenly there were enough ROROs to connect the near islands. By this time vehicles were already rolling as the major roads were already concreted including in Mindanao.

Balicuatro Port Buses ©Mike Baylon

When our national fleet was getting smaller both in ferries and in cargo ships the government through the Philippine Ports Authority held on to the completely wrong mantra that “if ports are built then ships will come”. They and their booster Aquilino Pimentel compared this to roads that when built even ahead of time will slowly have traffic. This is so because people will migrate along the route, people will try to take advantage of the land and forest and also, many roads are actually shortcuts.

It is a completely different thing in ports and shipping because the correct mantra is “ships come when there is something to load”. In the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, Samar and Luzon there were a lot of ports before and many were privately-built. Those ports existed because they were trying to exploit the forests and the mines then. When the forest was gone and when metallic ore trade fell those many ports suddenly became disused and became “ports to nowhere” and slowly they dilapidated. Ports dilapidate faster than roads because of the weathering action of the winds and waves and of the sun. Add to that our many typhoons that damage ports especially since we don’t construct breakwaters.

An example of wrong advanced preparations was the 12 fish ports that Luis Villafuerte was able to wangle for Bicol from Ferdinand Marcos in 1983-84. Those were supposed to be dual-use ports as in other ships can also use them. When the ROROs came 25 years later the ports were already damaged and dilapidated. If only bureaucrats and politicians open their closed eyes they should easily see that empirically and historically their mantra is completely wrong.

Old Port of Pio Duran, Albay ©Mike Baylon

One of the reasons for the rise of “ports to nowhere” is building or improving of ports is used as political patronage to show a local politician “was able to wangle a project”. Of course, in the corrupt Philippines almost all public works have percentages for the pockets of powers-to-be which are euphemistically called as “S.O.P” and that is a very great incentive. National powers meanwhile give that in exchange for political support. The worst excesses of this syndrome were in the previous administration which needed all the support it can buy to stave off impeachment. And the gall of it all was the contract with a French company using soft loan to acquire pre-fabricated ports to be built especially in our eastern seaboard which no longer has shipping! This is a very classic example of a “ports to nowhere” mentality. That lady responsible for that was also wont to transfer national ports to LGUs in exchange for political support and votes. As rightly observed by the next administration those ports deteriorated fast because there was no maintenance and were just being used as milking cows.

Bato Port ©Mike Baylon

The good development is the current dispensation reversed the policy of “ports to nowhere” creation and even took back some ports “donated” to LGUs and it also canceled the contract with the French company even under threat of a court case. The current administration is actually judicious with building new ports reasoning we have more than enough. And that is true because the truth is there are even more private port and this mushroomed after the incentive given by Marcos in the early ‘80s. These port can also handle ship commercially, a policy upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by the PPA.

There is also another set of factors that speed up the creation of “ports to nowhere”. When the ships grew in size, both the ferries and the cargo ships, suddenly many old district ports can no longer accommodate the bigger ships for lack of depth. Also when containerization came the old wooden wharves were no longer able to handle the higher weight. Express ferries and container ships also came and so many intermediate ports were left behind. And finally, highways sprouted throughout the country. Towns that were reachable only by ships before now have roads. Because of that many routes both for passenger and cargo ships disappeared. That is part of the reason why so many shipping companies of the past are gone now.

To summarize, it was the retreat of shipping which first created the “ports to nowhere”. Subsequently this was exacerbated by a wrong and corrupt push from Malacanang for selfish motives full not only of political motives but also to build private fleets. With no more largesse to touch these recent times, these fleets fast growths suddenly slowed in the current dispensation when before they were buying ships as if there is no tomorrow.

Tagpopongan Port ©Aristotle Refugio

Ports to nowhere are just a big waste of taxpayer’s money. It is just like throwing billions of money to the wind. And the madness has not even completely stopped. They still completed ports like the Pulupandan port which cost P700 million and it has almost no traffic since 30 years ago. 24 kilometers north of that, they want to build a port in Bacolod for the same price because of just some politician’s pique at the successful private port operator BREDCO. To get one congressman to support that, another congressman offered that congressman to build a port in her district some two dozen kilometers to the north of Bacolod. When further down the road in Sagay, another port was just recently completed.

In Bislig, the port of PICOP was still operational and yet the government still built a new port. And soon after, another port was built which they promptly closed down because there was no traffic. In Samal, they also completed a port which is not even worth as a palay or corn drying area now. We must really be a country of mad people. And I marvel at the gall of politicians and bureaucrats and at the stupidity of “goalkeeper” NEDA. Recently, I read that improvement in the port in Tandoc, Camarines Sur was finished. Amazingly, there is no actual road to the place and access to that is via a motor banca. It seems the “goalkeeper” was just looking at some imaginary roads in the map and doesn’t even know how to pay for a satellite images to check if there really is a road. It can only be one of two things for NEDA – outright dumbness or corruption too. With such a distant and remote place with few inhabitants, who would dare ships through there when the port of Pasacao is nearer to the main commercial and population center?

Lawigan Port, Bislig ©Janjan Salas

Wastage and corruption are big banes to our country. In shipping that primarily manifests in the “ports to nowhere”.