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 MV Tacloban City of William Lines

When I first saw the MV Tacloban City of William Lines in the late 1980’s, I did not think much of her. She looked small and having ridden small ferries already I thought she had not that much to offer. Among liners then in the North Harbor she was among the smallest already in the league of the MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The MV Don Julio of Negros Navigation certainly looked bigger. Of course, there is no comparison to the other ferries then in North Harbor except for maybe those owned by MBRS Lines, the MV Salve Juliana and MV Romblom Bay which were actually overnight ships from Manila.

If there is something that makes the MV Tacloban City look small it is because of her thin beam. ROROs even though shorter than her like the Moreta Shipping ROROs in North Harbor like the MV Nikki and the small MV Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines looked bigger or equal because of “fatter” beams and of course ROROs for the same length are generally higher because RORO decks and ramps have to be tall enough for the vehicles being loaded including container vans mounted on trailers.5556051110_863ca5e32f_b

(Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

Later, when I was able to sail with the MV Tacloban City as the MV Sampaguita Ferry in Zamboanga City, I found out she had more to offer that I previously thought. She was a liner after all before and she retained all her amenities even though she is just being used then as an overnight ship to Pagadian City. Like her fleet mate MV Iligan City, she has practically everything except that it seems everything is miniaturized and one is thrown back imagining the liners in the past when they were still smaller and shipping companies were trying to maximize passenger capacity for the growing population and passengers of the country.

The MV Tacloban City came to the country in 1975 and she was a cruiser. In those times there were no RORO Passenger (ROPAX) ships yet and it was still the time of the cruisers. Cruisers were “thinner” the ROPAXes for the latter need the bigger beam to balance its taller superstructure. Cruisers meanwhile were designed to slice through the water and hence they were thinner. They thus had only one engine and one propeller compared to the usual two of the ROPAXes for the same length. Sitting lower on the water, cruisers tend to be more stable. However, they tend to rock a lot in port when their booms handle cargo especially if it is a container van.

When the MV Tacloban City came to the country she was only the second fast cruiser liner of William Lines after the legendary MV Cebu City which arrived brand-new from Japan. The MV Tacloban City was a second-hand vessel, a recognition of the changed economic circumstances of the country when the economy and the exchange rate worsened significantly starting the first half of the 1970’s which made acquisition of brand-new ships impossible already for it already cost a lot. Furthermore, credit and availability of foreign currency were already tight during those times especially after the Oil Shock of 1973.

The MV Tacloban City was a ferry built in 1962 by Sanoyasu Dockyard in Osaka, Japan for Oshima Unyu. The ferry was then known in Japan as the MV Naminoue Maru. She is of steel hull with raked stem and a cruiser stern and two masts (boom looks like a third mast, however). The ship was assigned the IMO Number 5246295 later.

The ferry had a length over-all (LOA) of 91.1 meters, a beam of 12.8 meters, an original gross register tonnage (GRT) of 2,244 tons and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 1,171 tons. She was powered by a single Mitsubishi engine of 5,800 horsepower and her original sustained top speed was 19 knots.

This ferry was launched in December of 1974 and completed in March of 1975 and she was used in the route to Oshima Island southeast of the main island of Honshu before she became part of A” Lines (which means she must have been designed for stability). William Lines acquired the MV Naminoue Maru for P16 million which was roughly $2.2 million dollars then.

With her coming to the Philippines additional structures were built on her like what is usually done to increase the passenger capacity and to build additional amenities. In conversion to gross tonnage (GT) the cubic size went down to 1,965. The new net tonnage was 767, the depth was 4.7 meters and the deadweight tonnage (DWT) was 1,173 tons.

The formal inauguration of the ship was on October 14, 1975. The ship’s name was a homage to the city she will serve which was the new style then already of William Lines to name their fast cruisers for the city they will serve (as compared before when their ex-”FS” ships were named after the sons and daughters of the founder William Chiongbian).

1975 1015 Cheetah of the Sea_MV Tacloban City

(Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

The ship initially had three passenger decks with a passenger capacity of 1,018 person. With that, she was one of the earliest passenger ships in the country to breach the 1,000-passenger capacity mark. Later, a half-deck for passengers was built at the bridge level and increasing her passenger capacity to 1,274 persons.

Upon fielding in the country, the MV Tacloban City was used in the Catbalogan and Tacloban route from Manila. This was the next foray then of William Lines in Eastern Visayas after an earlier putative attempt using the MV Elizabeth, an old former “FS” ship without air-conditioning which was heavily outmatched by the better competition like the MV Sweet Grace, MV Sweet Rose, both of Sweet Lines and the MV Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lineswhich all had air-conditioning (there were also lesser passenger-cargo ships without air-conditioning to Catbalogan and Tacloban then). This was the time when there was no road and intermodal connections yet to Eastern Visayas from Luzon, the time when liners were still the king (or better yet queen) to the region.

When the MV Tacloban City was fielded in the Eastern Visayas route suddenly William Lines had parity with the better competition. In terms of size, the MV Tacloban City was just about the size of the better competition and in amenities, accommodations, food and passenger service they might have been in rough parity. What her advantage then was she was the speediest among the liners with air-conditioning to Catbalogan and Tacloban and William Lines harped on that by calling her the “Cheetah of the Sea”. Cheetahs of course are known for their bursts of speed. And in the direct route to Tacloban, the MV Tacloban City sailed the 363-nautical mile route in only 21 hours including the slow passage in San Juanico Strait with its many shallows and sandbars. For a long time MV Tacloban City’s cruising speed was 17.5 knots which can match even some of the liners of today.

The MV Tacloban City served the two Eastern Visayas cities for more than 16 years, one of the ships to serve a route the longest straight and long after her initial competitors had long been gone from the route and even during the time when the intermodal buses and trucks had already been rolling to Samar and Leyte through the short-distance ferry-ROROs traversing San Bernardino Strait.

She was only removed when MV Masbate I took over her route and she was transferred to the Manila-Ozamis route via Pandan of Antique. A little later she was again shunted to the more minor Manila-Dipolog (which is actually Dapitan) route via Batan, Aklan, an ignominy often suffered by older liners. She was holding this route when the William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) merger took place on January 1, 1996.

When that merger came the MV Tacloban City was relegated to the regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation or CFC where she was assigned the Cebu-Roxas City route. That route did not last and the next year, 1997, she was offered for sale along with many other cruiser ships (along with other ROPAXes) of WG&A and Cebu Ferries Corporation.

In the same year the expanding Sampaguita Shipping Corporation of Zamboanga City snapped her up and she was fielded in the Zamboanga City-Pagadian route with almost no modification. She was renamed into MV Sampaguita Ferry but she is generally regarded as MV Sampaguita Ferry 1 with the acronym “SF1” (and I wondered if WG&A ever complained). It is here in this route that I was able to sail her in 1998 with my late mother after visiting my brother in Zamboanga City. We were in Cabin and though small by the cabins of the day it was still respectable.

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(Photo by Britz Salih)

I was not able to roam the ship much as we were already tired and I have to tend to my elderly mother. That was the time when Zamboanga port still had no expansion and so many motor boats were using that port (along with so many small cruiser ships as there were still a lot of shipping companies still existing then in Zamboanga). We were only able to board near 11pm and with great difficulty. Only the bow portion of the ship was able to dock due to non-availability of wharf space and we passengers have to clamber over the ship not via the gangplank but over the bow through a ladder and that was difficult for my mother. The long wait at the port even added to our tiredness. And that Cabin which was among the best at least among the Zamboanga local ships was a welcome respite.

Even at a very late departure because the ship was not able to leave immediately as cargo still has to be loaded, we still arrived at a reasonable 8am in Pagadian. We had a good night’s sleep and actually we were already asleep when the ship left port. I had no camera then but before leaving port I took a long look at her capturing in my mind her lines and stance. I did not know that will be the last time I will see the former MV Tacloban City.

Not long after, Sampaguita Shipping Corporation (SSC) ran into financial trouble not entirely of her own creation. The Zamboanga-Pagadian highway improved when before it was more of a bumpy and dusty ride with danger from bandits, the reason why some prefer the more expensive ship especially the wealthy (and that is why there is patronage for the Cabin class that started from the MV Lady Helen of SKT Shipping. More trucks rolled too and slowly the cargo and the passengers of the Zamboanga City-Pagadian ships started to evaporate.

With its new ships financed by bank loans and with revenues drying, Sampaguita Shipping went belly up and her mortgaged ships were seized by the banks including the MV Sampaguita Ferry and she was anchored. Later, she disappeared along with the former MV Iligan City, also of William Lines before. Tale in Zamboanga City says the two sailed for Cebu City for breaking but I doubt the story. The two could have easily sailed south to meet their fates with the ship cutters. By that time there were no more buyers of cruiser ships anymore as they were already obsolete for most routes.

In international maritime databases there is no information on the final fate of the former MV Tacloban City.

[Note: There is another ship, a tanker with exactly the same name as this cruiser ferry and co-existed at the same time with her which is linked to ignominy as she was the ship that rammed the MS Don Juan, the flagship then of Negros Navigation. That happened in the night of April 22, 1980 in Tablas Strait. I mentioned this not to rake up old memories that should have been left in peace but to avoid any confusion and a clarification that this cruiser ferry is not involved in that horrible accident which claimed over a thousand lives.]

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]