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.]

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In The Middle of the 1960’s We Needed New Liners and Europe Filled That Need And Not Japan

With the exception of De la Rama Steamship Company, the Philippine liner shipping companies that were born or resurrected after World War II were dependent on the former “FS” (for Freight and Supply) ships from the US Navy. That type of ship was the backbone of our postwar passenger fleet; it was also the most numerous. One reason for that was so many of that type was built during World War II and most were deployed in the Pacific Ocean campaign of the US. Having to pay for the Philippine prewar ships they requisitioned for the war effort that type became the most common replacement given by the US together with the former “F” ships. Aside from direct replacement, the US also had to dispose so many of them and instead of bringing them back to the US where they have no use of them, many were just given to the Philippine government as aid and reparations. The Philippine government then put them up for sale at near-bargain prices (about $60,000 only; where can you get a ship that cheap?). Of course, as always, political considerations mattered and so those who have political connections had the inside track in the purchase of these vessels.

Many of the Philippine liner shipping companies were so enamored with these former “FS” ships that they practically purchased no other vessel type for the next twenty years after the war. Among those were William Lines Incorporated, Southern Lines Incorporated (they also had former “F” ships too) and General Shipping Corporation. In other liner shipping companies’ fleets like that of Philippine Steamship Navigation Company/Everett Steamship, Hijos de F. Escano Incorporated and Manila Steamship Company, the former “FS” ships were in clear majority. Even in the venerable Compania Maritima’s fleet half of those were former “FS” ships. Meanwhile, half of fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company was composed of former “Y” ships which were related to the former “FS” ships. These were former tankers converted into passenger-cargo ships. There was no Negros Navigation Company route then yet to Manila. What had a route then to Manila was the small Ledesma Shipping Lines. Negros Navigation Company became a liner company when they and Ledesma Shipping Lines merged.

Being “enamored” with former “FS” ships also had a reason. They were cheap and while they may be basic sea transportation, the passengers were willing to put up with its deficiencies. And for whatever deficiency, sometimes good food is enough to make passengers overlook it. And so whenever a former “FS” ship becomes available in the market the liner shipping companies readily snapped it up. That goes true even for the fleet of the shipping companies that quit the shipping business like Manila Steamship in 1956 (along with some much smaller shipping companies).

The future great Carlos A. Go Thong & Company was not among the recipients of ships from the US as reparation. Their first ships were salvaged “F” ships that they bought. They only had their first ex-”FS” ships when they bought out the Pan-Oriental Shipping Company of the Quisumbings of Mandaue which then went into motorcycle assembly (the Norkis-Yamaha concern). Like Go Thong, the style of the other smaller passenger liner shipping company was to lengthen the hull of the former “F” ships so these will be “FS” ships equivalent. That was the origin of the first flagship of Go Thong, the Dona Conchita. However, some other small liner shipping companies which did not have enough capital or were just sailing minor routes simply sailed straight their small ex-”F” ships. Some other were also using converted minesweepers and PT boats. Many of the shipping companies in regional routes were using converted “F” ships and converted minesweepers.

These former “FS” ships like the other war surplus ships from the US like the “C1-M-AV1” ships were classified as “passenger-cargo” ships. Obviously, they carry passengers and cargo but it actually has a deeper meaning. In those days, passenger liner shipping companies don’t normally operate pure cargo ships like these recent decades. It is actually these passenger-cargo ships that carry the bulk of cargo in the inter-island route in liner operations (which means there is a fixed route and schedule). The passenger capacities of the ships then were small (there were no 1,000-passenger capacity liners then yet and tops then was just about 700 passenger capacity and normal was just about 300). What was more prized then sometimes were the cargo holds of the ships. Handled by booms (there were no container vans yet) the interport hours were long and departures especially in the interports were not prompt. As long as there is cargo to be loaded, the ships would not leave. Unloading of cargo then in the interport can already take several hours and with so many interport calls the longest-distance ports like Davao takes one week to be reached.

In the mid-1960’s the workhorse fleet from former US Navy ships were already long in the tooth. There were no more of that type to replace the hull losses and our population and trade was growing. Mindanao too has already experienced great migration from the Visayas and so migrants had to travel and goods had to be exchanged. Obviously there was a need to refleet or add to the fleet. The only company that was still able to acquire former “FS” ships from the US in the 1960’s was the newly-established Philippine President Lines, a shipping company well-backed from the highest circles of government. Most of what they were able to acquire were former “AKL” ships of the US Navy. These were former “FS” ships retained by the US Navy after the war and refurbished for use in supplying the many scattered islands and bases of the US in the wide Pacific Ocean. These ships were among the last of its type released by the US.

Some liner shipping companies which had easy starts because of political connections, specifically, Southern Lines Incorporated and General Shipping Corporation shirked from the challenge and quit shipping and simply sold their ships. Southern Lines’ ships went to various liner shipping companies while that of General Shipping Company was divided between Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Sweet Lines Incorporated. Amazingly, this gave birth to two separate events and entities. Once again, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation had a fleet of its own (before they were just a partner in the Philippine Steamship and Navigation together with Everett Steamship of the US; before the war they were partners with Hijos de F. Escano in La Naviera Filipina). The second event and entity was the regional shipping company Sweet Lines Incorporated became a long-distance liner company. General Shipping Corporation, meanwhile, followed another bandwagon and moved into foreign routes using ships chartered from the National Development Corporation of the Philippine government. It was not difficult for them because they were well-connected politically.

Since no surplus ships were still available from the US then a new source had to be found. Japan by this time was still building their merchant fleet because these were the years of Japan’s “economic miracle” of galloping growth and so no surplus ships were still available from them at that time. The only logical place to look at would then be Europe as the US as a nearly solid continental country has many locomotives and rail wagons but not passenger liner ships. Before this time Compania Maritima has already shown the way in sourcing surplus passenger-cargo ships from Europe. It was easy for them since they have Spanish origins and connections.

I will start from the companies that made moves in acquiring passenger cargo-ships from Europe starting from the one which made a big move. It was the shipping company Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. that was not a recipient of US reparations which took a big gamble in acquiring passenger-cargo ships from Europe. I don’t know but maybe there should not be a great deal of surprise there as they did not get any favors from the US or the government before which means they will have to pull their own bootstraps up themselves if they want to move up. And over a period of six years until 1969 they acquired a total of 9 European passenger-cargo ships for local waters (the Gothong, Dona Pamela, the Dona Gloria, Tayabas Bay, the Dona Rita, the Dona Helene, the Don Lorenzo, the Don Camilo and the first Don Sulpicio. Aside from the nine, Go Thong was able to acquire the big ships Subic Bay, Manila Bay and Sarangani Bay. The first two were C1-A ships of US built but acquired from Europe while the last was a former ship of De la Rama Steamship. Also acquired in the same period was Dona Anita, the former Governor B. Lopez of Southern Lines which has airconditioning and the Dona Hortencia, a former Northern Lines ship of Japanese origins.

Three of these ex-European ships were former refrigerated cargo ships and that means a lot because with refrigeration facilities then Go Thong can then build First Class sections, lounges and restaurants that have airconditioning. So cold drinks will be available anytime too (when the bulk of Filipino homes don’t have refrigerators yet) along with the capacity to carry loads that should remain frozen or chilled. These things were simply not possible with the ex-”FS” ships and besides these former ships from Europe were bigger, a little faster and they have big cargo holds which means more capacity for generating profitable runs. With 14 ship acquisitions Go Thong was already more than Compania Maritima in the inter-island routes before they broke up in 1972 even though they are using their big ships to Europe and the Far East.

For a major, William Lines Inc. had a rather tepid response. They only acquired two surplus ships from Europe (the sister ships Virginia and Zamboanga City, the first) in the mid-1960’s but they bought two former “FS” ships (the Dona Maria and Don Jose) let go by the other liner shipping companies (yes, they have a definite liking for that). The new liner company Sweet Lines Inc. acquired only one surplus passenger-cargo ships from Europe in this period (the Sweet Bliss) and that is understandable as they were just a new liner company. However, they also bought two passenger-cargo ships discarded by the other liner companies (these were not former “FS” ships).

Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, at the same time did not purchase any passenger-cargo ship from Europe. But in Philippine Steamship Navigation Company (PSNC) they had three passenger-cargo ships which has airconditioning and refrigeration which only arrived in 1955 (The Legaspi, Elcano and Cagayan de Oro). In effect, for them this is their equivalent of the passenger-cargo ships from Europe. The Philippine President Lines and its successor company for local routes Philippine Pioneer Lines purchased only one passenger cargo ship from Europe (the Aguinaldo) as they were already concentrating on their international routes (and that ship was soon passed to their foreign operations). In fact, they soon transferred their local operations to their subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines.

Special note should be given to two liner shipping companies that took a different tack and the higher road — those that purchased brand-new liners instead of surplus. One of them was Hijos de F. Escano (later known as Escano Lines). What they did was to take out loans and they ordered three brand-new passenger-cargo liners from West Germany which already had airconditioning. These are the Fatima, Agustina II and Fernando Escano II. Negros Navigation Company, meanwhile, which is establishing itself as a liner company outdid them and took a different supplier. They ordered brand-new liners with airconditioning starting in 1962 which was followed by one each in 1965 and 1967. Those ships were the second Princess of Negros, the Dona Florentina and the beautiful Don Julio, the second. The difference was they ordered their liners from Japan except for the first which was ordered from Hongkong.

Compania Maritima also ordered one brand-new liner with airconditioning from West Germany, the Visayas. Compania Maritima also acquired two big cargo-passenger ships from De la Rama Steamship, the Lingayen Gulf and the Sarangani Bay. They also acquired a local-built liner from General Shipping Corporation that had already airconditioning which they renamed as the Mactan. As a footnote, Sweet Lines Inc. also ordered one brand-new liner from West Germany, the Sweet Grace which for me was rather surprising for a new liner company given that older but more “conservative” liner companies did not go into this direction.

Among those that did not make moves were Madrigal Shipping Company and De la Rama Steamship, two formerly revered names in shipping. Madrigal Shipping Company were then already disposing ships either to the breakers or to other companies. Among the local liner shipping companies, they, together with the already-defunct-then Manila Steamship Company had the penchant for buying really old ships from Europe before and so its expected life is not long. Moreover, Madrigal Shipping Company was by this time already losing in their quixotic routes to Northern Luzon and Northern Bicol and it was just practically using the remaining life of the ferries they have not disposed off. They had only one ship acquired from Europe in this period that they did not immediately dispose of and this was the Viria. Like the rest of their acquisitions this was small because their routes were minor compared to the rest. Hence, this acquisition was not comparable to the European acquisition of the others.

Meanwhile, De la Rama Steamship at the middle of the 1960’s was beginning to function just as international shipping agents. They have already disposed then of almost all their ships including those chartered from the National Development Corporation and they have long disposed of their former “FS” and “F” ships. Two of their big ships went to Compania Maritima in this period.

The smaller passenger liner companies with lesser routes and revenues proved incapable of moving up to the European category of ships, brand-new or surplus. However, four upstart companies tried to join this trend. The new Dacema Lines Incorporated was able to purchase two old passenger-cargo liners from West Germany in 1967, the Athena and the Demeter. The new E. K. Litonjua Steamship Company Incorporated/Eddie Steamships (Philippines), Incorporated was able to do likewise with three old passenger-cargo ships from various countries, the Sultan KL, the Aurelio KL and the Eddie KL. Another upstart, the Northern Lines Incorporated was able to acquire two passenger-cargo ships in this period (along with cargo ships), the Don Salvador and the Don Rene and surprisingly the source of their ships was Japan. Another newcomer, the MD Shipping Corporation was also able to procure a surplus passenger-cargo ship from Norway, the Leon. Except for the Northern Lines ships the ship mentioned did not really last long because they were already old when they can here.

These moves or non-moves determined the fate of the liner shipping companies for the next ten years. With the bold move of Carlos A. Gothong & Co. they moved up fast in the totem pole of the local liner shipping companies that by the start of the 1970’s they were not only barking at the heels of Compania Maritima but has already achieved parity or were even slightly ahead already in the inter-island routes. On the other end of the pole those that did not acquire any or practically had no acquisition were already gone from the inter-island routes in the next ten years and this included Philippine Pioneer Lines and the successor company Galaxy Lines. Madrigal Shipping Company by then had also disposed of almost of their ships and had almost no more ships sailing. The ships of the two companies many of which were ex-”FS” and ex-”Y” ships went to minor liner companies NCL/NORCAMCO Lines (the former North Camarines Lumber) and N&S Lines.

All these moves or non-moves in the middle of the 1960’s determined the fate and the positions of the liner shipping companies from the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s. Go Thong, a relative newcomer in liner shipping moved up a lot in liner shipping tier with their big acquisition. The liner shipping companies that made enough acquisitions in the mid-1960’s chugged along and generally did not lose rank for the next decade, relatively. Among these were Compania Maritima, William Lines Inc., Sweet Lines and Escano Lines. Philippine Steamships and Navigation Co. declined. The ex-”FS” ships were no longer as competitive in the 1970’s and the “C1-M-AV1” ships did not prove resilient and the the Type N3 ships even less durable. Negros Navigation Company was on the way up as they have new ship. The smaller liner companies that were still dependent of ex-”FS” ships (and the related ex-”Y” ships) and the ex-”F” and former minesweepers and were not refleeting were already on the way down. That included Bisayan Land Transport, NORCAMCO, N&S Lines, Rodrigueza Lines and many other small operators.

As recap, twenty years after our inter-island fleet basically relied on war-surplus ships from the US, the first augmentation we had were ferries sourced from Europe as ships from Japan were still rare in the mid-1960’s because they were in the midst of their own economic boom. Up to the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s we will still source liners from Europe (like the legendary Sweet Faith). It will in the next decade when Japan will be our main supplier of surplus passenger ships.

So from war-surplus ships from the US in the end of the war and up to early 1960’s to European surplus ships in the 1960’s to Japan surplus ships in the 1970’s – these were what marked the early periods of our postwar liner shipping, the period most people now are no longer aware of. This article seeks to fill that void.

[Photo Credit: coasters-remembered.net]