The Ferry Routes of Sulpicio Lines and the Assignments of Its Ships

Among the local liner shipping companies before, it was Sulpicio Lines which was known for an almost unvarying schedules and routes. For nearly 15 years until they were suspended from sailing by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) because of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, their schedules were almost the same. The only significant change was when the MV Princess of Unity arrived in the country in 1999 and Sulpicio Lines created an entirely new route for her, the Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas (General Santos City) route. But this route was permanently gone in 2005. For a time, Sulpicio Lines also gave MV Manila Princess a route similar to the MV Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route). But she did not last as they can never make it engines reliable enough.

With an unvarying route, Sulpicio Lines does not need to advertise in the national and local papers unlike her main competitor WG&A Philippines (later the Aboitiz Transport System or ATS) which always changed assignments and schedules. Passengers know which day there is a Sulpicio ship in their area and what is the hour of departure. They just go to the port as Sulpicio Lines does not practice the online booking system. The only failure would be then was if the scheduled ship is on drydock. However, if a suitable reserve ship is available, Sulpicio Lines will still run the route and schedule. And that was one of the functions of their MV Manila Princess then, to relieve ships going to the drydock.

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Folio credit: Ken Ledesma

The queen route of Sulpicio Lines was the Manila-Cebu route. This was the route where they field their flagship and that runs twice a week (so that means plenty of interport hours for the ship). Many of her passengers are still bound to the other islands including Mindanao and so they still transfer ships. Some of them do after shopping in SM Cebu or in Colon. Or some leave their belongings somewhere and go to Carbon Market. SM Cebu, Colon and Carbon are all just near Cebu port.

Conversely, some of the passengers of the ship going to Manila are from the other islands including Mindanao. Cebu Port is actually a great connecting port. In a hub-and-spoke model, Cebu Port is the hub and the routes emanating from her as the spokes.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

In these nearly 15 years, three ships served as the flagship holding the Manila-Cebu route. The first was the MV Princess of the Orient starting in 1993 when she arrived in the country. She replaced the old flagship which was the MV Filipina Princess. However, on 1998, Princess of the Orient sank in a storm off the coast of Cavite. The MV Princess of the Universe then replaced her on the route and she held the route until 2004 when MV Princess of the Stars arrived.

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Going back to a more distant past, it was in 1975 when Sulpicio Lines adopted an exclusive Manila-Cebu route in the mold of MV Sweet Faith and MV Cebu City when it fielded the MV Don Sulpicio came (this ship was more known by her latter name – MV Dona Paz of the sinking infamy). When MV Don Sulpicio was hit by a fire while sailing (and beached), the MV Dona Ana replaced her on the route (this ship was also more known by her latter name – MV Dona Marilyn of the foundering infamy near Maripipi island). When the MV Philippine Princess arrived in 1981 she took over the Manila-Cebu route until MV Filipina Princess displaced her in 1988.

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The next most important route for Sulpicio Lines in this period was the route held by the MV Princess of Paradise, the fastest liner in the country for about a decade or so. She held the Cagayan de Oro route and she sails to that port twice a week. One was a direct voyage and only taking 25 hours for the 512-nautical mile route. On the way back to Manila, she calls on Cebu. Her next voyage in the same week will be a one that will call first in Cebu and Nasipit before going to Cagayan de Oro. From Cagayan de Oro she will do a direct voyage to Manila.

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Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Josel Bado

The third most important route for the company during this time was the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route held by the big and former flagship MV Filipina Princess. This route has rough waters during the ‘amihan’ (the northeast monsoon) but it seems with her sailing ability she was just fit for this route. Being just run once a week she has long lay-overs in Cebu Port especially on her way back to Manila where she stays overnight. These long lay-overs was one of the characteristics of Sulpicio Lines and passengers appreciate this because they are given time to visit relatives and to shop. As for me, I welcome it as it gives me a chance for “free tourism” (as I don’t have to spend to reach the place and if I am already tired and sweaty I can go back to the ship and partake of its free meals, too).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route of Sulpicio Lines after this was the weekly Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route, a route that does not pass through Cebu but nevertheless calling on three regional centers of trade and commerce. In the Philippines, the routes passing through Iloilo are the next most important after the routes passing through Cebu. Three ships held this route for Sulpicio Lines. The first was the MV Princess of the Pacific. After she grounded on an islet off Antique in 2004 which resulted in comprehensive total loss (CTL), she was replaced by the MV Princess of the World. Later, when she was destroyed by fire the MV Princess of the South held this route. Except for MV Princess of the World, in terms of size, these ships were already a notch below the ships that served the first three routes, an indication of the relative difference of the central routes via Cebu and the western routes via Iloilo. Their speed too is also no longer in the 20-knot range of the ships in the first three routes (except MV Princess of the World).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

After the four come the relatively minor ships and routes of Sulpicio Lines (although the route held by MV Cotabato Princess does not look minor). And I will start first with that. MV Cotabato Princess held the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Actually, the liners from Manila does not dock in Cotabato Port which is a shallow river port. Instead, they dock in Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao, a significant distance away. This route has long lay-overs, too. Since there are plenty of marang, durian and lanzones in Zamboanga, enterprising passengers will bring in those fruits and sell to the passengers while sailing. It will be sold out by the time the ship is docking in Manila. So that there will be no restrictions they will also give the crew and the captain their shares. Estancia, meanwhile, is known for its abundant fish supply.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route after this was the weekly Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Cebu route. Upon reaching Ozamis, the ship still goes to Cebu and comes back the same day in the evening after the arrival. In this way, the Sulpicio Lines ship also serves as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ship but she has only a few passengers in this role. Since this route was a chopped version of the former route that still calls on Cagayan de Oro (dropped when MV Princess of Paradise arrived), she has two overnight lay-overs in Dumaguete which was nice. Adventurous passengers use that chance to roam the famous Dumaguete Boulevard. Two Sulpicio ferries served this route. The first was the old flagship MV Philippine Princess. When she burned in 1997 (in a drydock), the MV Princess of the Caribbean replaced her. Both ships are cruisers.

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I do not know the next most important route of Sulpicio Lines. All were weekly and all seems not to be priority routes. Here, the older and lesser ships of Sulpicio Lines were concentrated.

I might start with the near-parallel route of where MV Princess of Caribbean served. Incidentally, they depart Manila simultaneously. The ship on this route was the MV Dipolog Princess and from Manila it goes first to Tagbilaran, then Dipolog (actually Dapitan) before proceeding to Iligan and Cebu and she will retrace the route. Like the MV Princess of Caribbean she was also assigned an overnight Visayas-Mindanao route. She has even less passengers in this role. She has also long lay-overs but not overnight ones. This ship and route functioned as the ride of the Bol-anons in Lanao to their home province. This was not actually a strong route as the voyage takes too long and the ship was no longer at par with the good standards of the era. Many in Lanao just take the ferry to Cagayan de Oro and take the bus. That was also true for passengers from Manila.

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Photo credit: Joe Cardenas

I would rather next discuss the route to Palawan before discussing the routes that hook eastward. Sulpicio Lines has also the route to Puerto Princesa via Coron. It was the MV Iloilo Princess that was assigned there. But if there is a vacancy in the other routes, the ship has the tendency to leave Palawan and substitute. MV Iloilo Princess was also not that reliable as her engines were balky and I heard that only one chief engineer, the most senior, had a good feel for her engines. When MV Iloilo Princess burned in a shipyard in 2003 there was no replacement on the route any longer.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

The next route was a route that has permanence. It was the “longest” route in the company which means it had the most ports of call, a type which was a remnant of the routes of the past when express liners were just few, the roads were still bad and shipping companies try to call on most ports possible for increased revenues. This was the Manila-Masbate-Calubian-Baybay-Maasin-Surigao route. This was even the chopped version (it was up to Butuan in the old past) so it might be a surprise to some. Calubian was a port of call because of the emotional attachment of the owners to it (they started somewhere near there) although it has lost all significance. The MV Palawan Princess mainly held this route after she was displaced in the route to Ozamis. It had no airconditioned accommodations and the general arrangement plan was much like an ex-FS ship although she was bigger. She was the oldest liner then (not really a liner but a passenger-cargo ship). Her alternate was the much better MV Surigao Princess. But she cannot hold the route for long because of problematic engines. Too bad because though small her accommodations are up to Suite level (what a contrast with MV Palawan Princess). MV Surigao Princess was gone in 2003 when she was broken up.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Surigao Princess

Photo credit: Edison Sy

The next route and ship were remarkable because they were able to hold on to the route when her era was already over because of the coming of the intermodal transport. The route was the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route. No, you can’t buy a Manila-Cebu ticket for this ship. You would have to pay extra for the Ormoc-Cebu leg which functions as an overnight route (in the MV Princess of the Caribbean and MV Dipolog Princess one can’t also ask for a ticket up to Cebu from Manila). There were long lay-overs too in Masbate and Ormoc. Even when the intermodal was already ruling, the MV Cebu Princess still soldiered on in this route because Sulpicio Lines simply won’t send ships to breakers as long as it was still capable of sailing.

The last liner route of Sulpicio Lines was a route that changed, was cropped within the period I am discussing (the other I mentioned that were cropped were cropped before this period). This was the route of the MV Tacloban Princess. Originally, she had a twice weekly route to Tacloban with one of that passing by Catbalogan. But with the loss of passengers and cargo to the buses and trucks, they dropped Catbalogan. For a time she even stopped sailing the Tacloban route (just too many buses here and also trucks especially trucks going back to Manila looking for a load). There was a time Sulpicio Lines combined her route with the route of MV Cebu Princess. Sulpicio Lines simply does not give up on a route and area. And that characteristic was the one lost by Philippine shipping (and that was irreplaceable) when they went out of ferry business because the other competitor was known for dropping routes in a minute because bean counters ruled there.

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Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas

Aside from these liner routes, Sulpicio Lines also had dedicated overnight ferry routes and ships. For the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route they used two ships. The first was the MV Cagayan Princess. But when the competition heated up in this route they fielded the new liner MV Princess of the Ocean. After she was assigned there, nobody can outgun Sulpicio Lines in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route in size and speed (well, even in the prestigious and premier Manila-Cebu route, Sulpicio Lines does not want to be outmatched).

And for the Cebu-Nasipit overnight ferry route, they have the MV Nasipit Princess at the start. But she does not sail in most days as its engines were really bad. When MV Princess of the Ocean was assigned in the Cagayan de Oro overnight route, the MV Cagayan Princess was assigned the primary duty in the Nasipit overnight route. In 2005 the MV Princess of the Earth came and she relieved the MV Cagayan Princess which was then brought to a new route, the overnight ferry route to Naval, Biliran. The Nasipit (Butuan in Sulpicio Lines parlance) overnight ferry route was one overnight route that Sulpicio Lines dominated in this era as the competition was inconsistent (sometimes there were ships, sometimes there were none).

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In 2008, Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. Three ferries, the MV Cebu Princess, the MV Cagayan Princess and the MV Tacloban City were sold off immediately to raise cash (and I knew then that the routes that hooks eastward and the most threatened by the intermodal will be finally lost). A few ships were allowed to sail thereafter but MV Cotabato Princess quit soon. Meanwhile the Sulpicio Lines fleet languished in Mactan Channel.

One by one the laid-up ships were sold to the breakers starting with the MV Princess of Paradise and MV Palawan Princess. This was followed by the MV Cotabato Princess. I guess they were trying to raise cash for settlement and other expenses by these disposals and also to amass cash for the purchase of new cargo ships. They had then two ships sailing, the MV Princess of the South which was holding the Manila-Cebu route and the MV Princess of the Earth which was sailing the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route with a diversion to Nasipit twice a week.

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There were five ships then in Mactan Channel and in their wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue. These were the MV Princess of the Universe, the MV Filipina Princess, the MV Princess of the Ocean, the MV Princess of the Caribbean and the MV Dipolog Princess. It is as if Sulpicio Lines was still waiting for a favorable turn of events in the greatest crisis of their company when public opinion was very much against them. But in one fell swoop they sold the five laid-up ships to the breakers. Maybe for emotional reasons the departures happened in the night.

Laid up three years those ships already deteriorated especially they were in sea water. Every year not used the budget needed to get them going again mounts. And the hope that the government and MARINA will relent on restrictions seemed to have evaporated. Being politicians, they would rather feed off on uninformed public opinion. Having no understanding of the maritime industry, they did not know they were killing the already threatened liner sector. Along this time PSACC (Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation – the new name of Sulpicio Lines) reached the decision to just concentrate on container shipping.

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In 2014, Sulpicio Lines sold their last two ferries, the MV Princess of the Earth and lastly, the MV Princess of the South. Now they are gone from passenger shipping. And when PSACC had already sold their last liners, MARINA withdrew their passenger license. Funny.

Ironic but the government is now encouraging entrants to this sector. But definitely there would be no takers as the viability of liners has changed and they have killed the most interested and most loyal shipping company in this sector. As the saying goes, “The medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”. That is what they did to Sulpicio Lines. The company will still survive in cargo shipping but the dedicated sea passengers have no more liners to sail with. Sad.

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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.]