When Eastern Visayas Ports And Shipping Were Still Great

Growing up I heard tales from my late father how great Tacloban port was. He told me about its importance, its physical dimensions, the location, the size of the bodegas outside it and even its relation to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I had the idea that Tacloban was the greatest port east of Cebu and my father told me that no port in the Bicol Region compares to Tacloban port and not even his beloved Legaspi port (that was the spelling of it then before it became “Legazpi”). He told me Tacloban port will not fade because the Romualdezes were in power in Leyte and everybody knows the relation of that clan to Ferdinand Marcos then (still a President, not yet a dictator). Ironically, my father was later proven wrong not because of politics but because of a paradigm shift in shipping that he was not able to anticipate (when the intermodal trucks and buses sank Eastern Visayas shipping).

So I always wondered what made Tacloban port click then. From my father, when I was still young, I got to learn what is a regional trade center, a regional capital, the importance of the two and it so happened that Tacloban happened to be both. The city by Cancabato Bay was really the dominant market east of Cebu City, bar none. My father always drilled me about cash crops and commodities and how it impacted or shall we say how it shaped shipping. He told me the government can always build ports and send ships to a port by inducement but he said if there is no cargo it won’t last as he stressed cargo makes shipping and not the other way around. Now, how many in government knows that maxim? Definitely not Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who loves “ports to nowhere” a lot!

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Tacloban port. Photo by Gerry Ruiz.

My father was very aware of the shift of the primary cash crop from abaca to copra in the 1950’s and its impact on shipping. In high school, I saw that with my own eyes. Proud, wealthy families in our province which grew rich on abaca handicrafts and trading suddenly became more modest in living. I saw how their bodegas became empty and how the abaca workers suffered. At the same time, I also saw how busy the private port of Legaspi Oil became. Legaspi Oil, an American firm, was then the biggest copra exporter of the country.

Our old man also told me about San Pablo City and how desiccated coconut and coconut oil milling made it one of our earliest cities. He also related me when I was in high school that Laguna was no longer the king of coconut. Leyte was the new lord and I understood by inference how that will boost Tacloban port, its shipping and the city itself.

With PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) co-founder Gorio Belen’s research in the National Library I had more flesh of what my father was telling me when I was young. Tacloban was a great port of call in the 1960’s and 1970’s and that was visible with the frequency of ships there and the quality of its ships. Definitely it cannot match Cebu or even Iloilo but it was not far behind the latter. And to think the latter had ships calling that were still going to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao (Cotabato, Dadiangas and Davao). Tacloban also had ships still going south to Surigao, Butuan or even Davao but it was not that many. What Tacloban had were ships calling in Catbalogan or Masbate before steaming further. There were also ships calling in Tacloban first before heading for Cebu.

Entering the ’60’s, Iloilo had 10 ship calls weekly while Tacloban had 7. That was when Cagayan de Oro only had 4 ship calls per week from Manila but Butuan and Surigao both had 6 each. Won’t you wonder with those figures? Well, Cagayan de Oro only became great when it became a gateway to Southern and Central Mindanao with the improvement of the highways. That will also tell one how Tacloban, the gateway to Eastern Samar then, stacked up to other ports. Catbalogan is also not far behind because in the main the ships that called on Tacloban also called on Catbalogan first to maximize passenger and cargo volume.

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Catbalogan port. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

In the 1960’s, it was air-conditioning that already defined what is a luxury ship and Tacloban was among the first that had a ship with air-conditioning beginning with the MV Sweet Rose in 1967 (and she served Tacloban for long) and the MV Sweet Grace in 1970. Both were liners of Sweet Lines and they were good ships with good service (I first heard that phrase from my late father, funny). And that was when other great shipping companies still did not have that kind of ship (and that will also tell how great Sweet Lines then). Even the great port of Cebu still had plenty of ex-”FS” ships then which was the basic kind of liner then. And that will give one a view of how important Tacloban port was in those days.

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The MV Gen. Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose. Philippine Herald photo. Reseach by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

A little of history. Right after the war, two shipping companies fought it out in the main Eastern Visayas ports of Tacloban and Catbalogan. These two were the old shipping company Compania Maritima which was of Spanish origin and the General Shipping Company (GSC) which were formed by former World War II military aides coming from distinguished Filipino families that were part of the comprador bourgeoisie. At one time, GSC had more ships to the two ports with three while Compania Maritima only had two. Another old shipping company, the Escano Lines also fought in the Tacloban route. Unlike the two, the ships of Escano Lines still went on to Surigao and Butuan which were their stronghold.

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MV Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

There were some smaller shipping companies too in the route like the Philippine Sea Transport, Veloso Lines, Corominas Richards Navigation and the Royal Lines. Among the single ships that also called in the two ports were the M/S Leyte Lady and M/S Lady of Lourdes. In the mentioned shipping lines, converted “FS” and extended “F” ships were the types calling in the two ports. Among that type that served long in the route (but not continuously) was the MV Leyte of Compania Maritima and I mentioned that because that was notable.

In 1955, Everett Steamship through the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), a joint venture of Everett and Aboitiz entered Catbalogan and Tacloban with the quixotic route Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Bislig-Davao-Dadiangas-Cebu-Manila. They used two brand-new liners alternatingly, the MV Legazpi and the MV Elcano. Those two were the first brand-new liners used solely in the local routes (to distinguish them from the big De la Rama Steamship liners that soon ended up in ocean-going routes).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

The MV Legazpi and MV Elcano were sister ships and fitted what was soon emerging as the new luxury liner class in the country (but the two were not at par with some of the luxury ships before especially the De la Rama Steamship liners which were lost in the war). If one has the money the route was a good way to tour the country and is a direct way to Southern Mindanao without going first to Cebu (because normally a passenger need to go there first from Eastern Visayas to take a connecting voyage). It was a nice route but sadly it did not last long because from the eastern seaboard route its route was shifted to the route rounding Zamboanga (I guess the reason was there was more business there and the seas were not so rough).

In the early ’60s, the Philippine Pioneer Lines, a subsidiary of the Philippine President Lines (PPL) also tried the Catbalogan plus Tacloban route. When they stopped sailing, their successor shipping company Galaxy Lines continued sailing that route but they did not last long when they folded operations as a company. The two companies used ex-“FS” and ex-“AKL” ships from the US Navy.

When General Shipping Company stopped local operations to go ocean-going in the mid-60s (and that provoked a break within the company), one of the companies which acquired half of their fleet and routes was the upstart Sweet Lines which was trying to follow the path of Go Thong & Company in trying be a national liner operation from a regional operations by acquiring an existing national liner shipping company which is quitting business. The other half of General Shipping fleet went to Aboitiz Shipping Company which then was revived as a shipping company separate from PSNC (and maybe the reason was the coming termination of the so-called “Parity Rights” in 1974). However, it was the PSNC that was used as the entity to re-enter the Tacloban but just using an ex-”FS” ship, the MV Carmen which came from the General Shipping Company and renamed.

At this time, however, the dominant shipping company in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route/s was already Compania Maritima (it was also the biggest shipping company then in the Philippines) after their main rival General Shipping exited the local shipping scene. The company had three ships assigned there, two of which were ex-”FS” ships including the aforementioned MV Leyte.

The year 1967 marked a change in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route. For the second time after the short-lived fielding of the luxury liners of PSNC the route had luxury liners again and two were competing against each other. The notable thing was they both came from General Shipping and both were local-builds by NASSCO (National Shipyards and Steel Corp., the current Herma Shipyard) in Mariveles, Bataan. These were the former second MV General Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose and the former second General Del Pilar which became the third MV Mactan of Compania Maritima.

However, the two were not fast cruiser liners. This category was already multiplying in the country with the fielding of the 17.5-knot brand-new cruisers of Negros Navigation Company, the MV Dona Florentina in 1965 and the MV Don Julio in 1967. This was preceded by the MV President Quezon of the Philippine President Lines which later became the MV Galaxy of Galaxy Lines which was first fielded in 1962. A note, however, the earlier MV Don Julio of Ledesma Lines which was an overpowered (by putting a submarine engine) ex-”FS” ship can also be classified as a fast cruiser liner and it also served the Leyte route shortly as the MV Pioneer Leyte of Philippine Pioneer Lines.

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The earlier MV Don Julio which became the MV Pioneer Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In this tight market, a small shipping company serving Bicol and Northern Samar also tried a Catbalogan and Tacloban route. This was the Rodrigueza Shipping Corporation which was already feeling the effects of the Philippine National Railways in Bicol regarding the movement of cargo. However, two Chinoy shipping companies that will dominate Philippine shipping in a decade-and-a-half’s time were still not represented in the route. The two were William Lines and Sulpicio Lines (which was not yet existent then). The mother company of Sulpicio Lines which was Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was also not in this route at this time. They will come in two years time, however, with the fielding of the first MV Don Enrique which was a lengthened former “FS” ship. You know they tended to start quietly.

Many ex-”FS” ships or even smaller ships were battling in the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes after 1967. Many will battle for there is cargo and copra was so strong then (exports to the US, Japan and Germany when we had 44% share of the world’s exports) not only in Tacloban but also in a way in Catbalogan which was synonymous with fishing before overfishing caught up with them. In this era, imported rice does not yet go direct to the provincial ports and Eastern Visayas is a rice-deficit region and Cotabato and other parts of the country sends rice to it through trans-shipment. Many other grocery and hardware items also come from Manila to the region as Eastern Visayas was not an industrial region.

In the luxury liner category, however, the MV Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines and the  MV Mactan of Compania Maritima started their battle. This was actually a very even battle because the two were sister ships but the third MV Mactan was faster at 16 knots to the 13.5 knots of the MV Sweet Rose because she was fitted with a bigger engine. Compania Maritima fielded the MV Mactan here because the MV Sweet Rose was overpowering their MV Leyte which was just a lengthened ex-”FS” ship. In a few years, however, the MV Mactan will sink in a storm and MV Leyte will come back in the Eastern Visayas routes.

Leading into the next decade, the 1970’s produced significant changes. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor to PSNC abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban routes and just concentrated in Western and Southern Leyte which was their origin (it had lots of copra too). Morever, the rising William Lines was already present and two successor companies of Go Thong & Company, the Sulpicio Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines+Lozenzo Shipping Corporation (two shipping companies with combined operations before their split in 1979) were also plying the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes but they were just using ex-”FS” ships. The old partner of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation before the war, the Escano Lines also left Tacloban but maintained Catbalogan as a port of call as long as their MV Rajah Suliman was still capable of sailing.

In the stead of the lost minor shipping lines of the region like Veloso Lines, some minor shipping companies were also doing the route. Among them were N&S Lines and NORCAMCO Lines which were actually Bicol and Northern Samar shipping companies. The two were looking for routes near their turf because of lost passengers and cargo from the opening up of the Maharlika Highway. Well, although Maharlika Highway was not yet fully paved, the trucks were beginning to roll to Bicol and maybe somehow they have already seen the handwriting on the wall. Rodrigueza Shipping, also a Bicol shipping company stopped sailing the route.

Soon, however, Sulpicio Lines upped the ante and fielded a liner with size, air-conditioning and service that will challenge the MV Sweet Rose and MV Mactan. This was the MV Dona Angelina which was a former refrigerated cargo ship in Europe. That type of ship, when converted here as a passenger-cargo ship will automatically have the availability of refrigeration and air-conditioning. At 13.5 knots design speed, she can match the pace of the MV Sweet Rose but not of the MV Mactan. The MV Dona Angelina was the second ship of Sulpicio Lines in the route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In response, Sweet Lines brought in their former flagship into the route, the MV Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany in 1968. She has the speed of 15.5 knots but she was not bigger than MV Dona Angelina or even the MV Dona Vicente (that later became the MV Palawan Princess) which was assigned also to the route. Competition was really heating up in 1974 and I remember this year was the peaking of copra prices just before its great fall.

Things were really heated up because next year Sulpicio Lines brought in their new flagship MV Don Sulpicio on its way to Cebu which means a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu route. Can you imagine that? If former flagship and current flagship will battle in this route then that means Tacloban and Catbalogan were very important ports then. And to think the later well-regarded MV Dona Vicenta also practically debuted on that route. Well, copra was still then a very important crop. In fact it was our primary cash crop then. By the way, the flagship MV Don Sulpicio was the later infamous MV Dona Paz and she came from Tacloban and Catbalogan on her last voyage.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In the heat of this competition, it was actually the old dominant Compania Maritima that was wilting. Their MV Mactan foundered in 1973 and there was no good replacement available and so the old ship MV Leyte was left shouldering alone and she was already badly outgunned by the ships of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. In the 1970’s there was no way a former “FS” ships can match the new liners that came from Europe. They simply were bigger, faster and had more amenities.

When the MV Don Sulpicio was assigned the exclusive Manila-Cebu route to join the two-way battle there of MV Cebu City and MV Sweet Faith, the good MV Dona Vicenta replaced her in the route and teamed up with the MV Dona Angelina. In 1976, however, William Lines fielded a very worthy challenger, the namesake of Tacloban which was the MV Tacloban City and she held the Catbalogan and Tacloban route for a long, long time. At 17.5 knots design speed she can match the best of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. Aside from speed she can also match in size, accommodation and service.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

And so in this year several ships that can be classified as luxury lines were battling in the route. That was an indication how important was that route. As a note, however, the MV Sweet Grace was reassigned by Sweet Lines to other routes especially since their luxury liner MV Sweet Home was no longer reliable. Meanwhile, the shrinking former nationally dominant Compania Maritima no longer fielded a second ship since they were already lacking ships because they no longer acquired a ship since 1970 despite a rash of hull losses.

In 1979, the death knell of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports was sounded clear although few realized it at that time for there was no concept of intermodal shipping before. This was the fielding of MV Cardinal Ferry I of Cardinal Shipping to span the San Juanico Strait and buses and trucks to and from Manila immediately rolled the new highways of Samar and Leyte. By this time copra as the primary cash and export crop of the country was already receding fast in importance because the export market was already shrinking due to the rise of what is called as substitute oils like corn oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

It was not Catbalogan and Tacloban which were first swamped by paradigm changes but the other ports of Samar like Laoang, Victoria and Calbayog (which I will discuss in another as these ports are more connected to Bicol and Masbate). The fall of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports will happen much later when copra has almost lost its importance. This was also the time that Manila oil mills has already been sidelined too by the rise of new oil mills in the provinces (and the government actually promoted that).

Although sliding now, for a time it looked like Tacloban and Catbalogan ports will hold on to the onslaught of the intermodal. One reason for that was in the crisis decade of the 1980’s it was the Top 2 Sulpicio Lines and William Lines that were still battling there and for sure none of the two will budge an inch. That was the decade when so many shipping companies quit business altogether (and that was most of our liner companies) and actually no shipping company was left unscathed.

In the late 1980’s, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) made a comeback in national liner shipping but it did not enter Tacloban or Catbalogan. Instead, they called on the Western Leyte ports of Palompon, Isabel and Ormoc before proceeding to Cebu and it was actually a very successful route for them. Also, the Madrigal Steamship came back to passenger shipping with good luxury liner cruisers (which were already obsolescent as it was already the  time of ROROs or Roll-on, Roll-off ships) and it had a Manila-Romblon-Catbalogan-Tacloban route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

However, this was not a long plus to Eastern Visayas liner shipping because in the early ’90s the venerable Sweet Lines and Escano Lines quit passenger shipping and although the latter still had cargo ships their presence were already receding in the region. And then the Madrigal Steamship did just last a few years and quit their passenger shipping also. There were no other entrants in this period to the region except just before the end of the millennium when the MBRS Lines of Romblon, seeking new routes entered the San Isidro port in Northern Samar. However, they also did not last long.

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MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Ozamis port. Jorg Behman photo. Credits: John Luzares

When the “Great Merger”which produced the shipping company WG&A happened in 1996, they did not add a new ship and just altered two routes a little. Actually, what happened is they even pulled out a ferry from Carlos A. Gothong Lines and just left one which was mainly the MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart (WG&A is a shipping company which changed route assignment every now and then). However, one of their ships which was passed on to their regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) tried a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route using the MV Our Lady of Akita 2 which was the former MV Maynilad. Although successful, she did not last long because she grounded in Canigao Channel and was never repaired.

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Credits to Toshihiko Mikami and funikichemurase

The last two liners to serve Catbalogan and Tacloban were the MV Masbate Uno of William Lines and WG&A and the MV Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines which had identical routes. The MV Cebu Princess also spelled the latter ship when she was down for repairs. When the MV Masbate Uno left as the the MV Our Lady of Manaoag of Cebu Ferries Corporation she was briefly replaced by the MV Our Lady of Naju in the Tacloban route.

Catbalogan and Tacloban finally had no liners left when Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger operations in 2008 when their MV Princess of the Stars sank in a typhoon and the MV Tacloban Princess was sold to a local breaker. That suspension also meant the end of the old MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines serving the ports of Calubian, Maasin and Baybay in the island of Leyte. That also meant the end of the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route of the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The WG&A also abandoned Tacloban and just tried to hold on to their Palompon/Ormoc route

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Photo by John Cabanillas of PSSS.

In a short time, however, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) which was the successor to WG&A also abandoned their Western Leyte routes too. However, for a time ATS came back and served Ormoc with the Manila-Romblon-Ormoc-Cebu route using the MV St. Anthony of Padua but that did not last long.

Now there are no more liners to Eastern Visayas and only oldtimers remember when its ports and shipping were still great. What the millennials know now are the intermodal buses and the so-many trucks in the many ports of Allen, Northern Samar.

Times have changed. The paradigm changed, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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