The Times of Trouble for Philippine Liner Shipping in the Past

In Philippine liner shipping, obviously the first time of trouble was when the Pacific War erupted after Japan attacked the Philippines and the United States. Liners were requisitioned by the US on the promise that it will be replaced when the war ends. The order then was if the ship cannot reach Australia it has to be scuttled to prevent it from falling into the invader’s hands. Most of our liner fleet then was lost to scuttling and to enemy fire. Some of it were captured and were pressed into enemy service and when Japan was already losing they sank into the bottom of the sea due to US submarine and aircraft attacks.

These liners that were lost during the Pacific War were good liners and many were built in foreign shipyards just in the Commonwealth Era which means they were still new. The older ones were mainly built in the 1920’s. And they were not necessarily small. Many of the good liners before the war were in the 80-meter class (when internationally a 120-meter was already grand).

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A prewar liner, the MV Don Isidro (Photo credits: Commerce and Gorio Belen)

When the US replaced our lost fleet as promised the number might have been right but the quality is different. The former “FS” ships were not the equal of our former liners even in size and to be able to use those they have to be converted and refitted first as they were not really liners but basic cargo ships. “FS” meant “Freight and Supply” after all.

Former “Y” ships were also given as replacement and these were former tankers but still a handful were converted to passenger use by removing the tanks. The former “Y” ships were slightly smaller than the former “FS” ships. For the lost regional ships, the US gave as replacement the former “F” ships, both the steel-hulled and the wooden-hulled types. Former minesweepers were also given as replacement. None of them were passenger ships to begin with and so conversion and refitting still had to be done.

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A former “FS” ship (Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

To replace the bigger liners, the US gave Type C1-M-AV1 , Type C1-B and Type N3 ships as replacements but those were also cargo ships and not liners and so they also have to be converted and refitted. None of all these types can match the luxury and comfort of our prewar liners. Were we shortchanged in the deal? I think the answer is obvious. We had purpose-built liners before the war and the replacement were surplus cargo ships that had no use for them anymore because the war has already ended.

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A former C1-M-AV1 ship (Photo by Rufino Alfonso)

The second times of trouble for Philippine shipping was the crisis decade of the 1970’s when continuous devaluation of the peso dominated the economic situation. It was the time that taking out big loans was fraught with danger since nobody can foresee when will be the next devaluation (which means in peso value the loan balloons). Because of this uncertainty and risk, the taking out of loans to order brand-new ships completely stopped. There were no more brand-new ships after the Cebu City of William Lines came out in 1972.

If the mid-1960’s was marked by acquisition of second-hand passenger-cargo ships (most were not really liners) from Europe, in the 1970’s the shipping companies were looking for right direction. Inadvertently, Sweet Lines showed the way with the acquisition of the Sweet Faith in 1970 and the Sweet Home in 1973. This started the era of fast cruiser liners in our seas. However, due to the fogs of uncertainty in the economic climate, few realized this was the new paradigm, the fast cruiser liners.

Sweet Lines ad - "Inimitable Mates" (Sweet Home and Sweet Faith)

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

Among the liner companies, only William Lines took up the challenge early with the Cebu City. In the middle of the 1970’s, Sulpicio Lines followed suit and acquired fast cruiser liners beginning with the Don Sulpicio and Dona Ana. William Lines also kept in step by successively acquiring fast cruiser liners which were named after cities, the Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City, Ozamis City, etc.

What happened then to the other liner companies especially the other top guns? In the decade of the 1970’s, Compania Maritima was already in its death spiral but few realized it then because they were held in such high regard because they have been No. 1 for so long. Actually, there might have a death wish in them already. Compania Maritima never bought another liner after the second-hand but big Luzon in 1970 until their demise in 1984. At the same time, their ships were sinking with alarming regularity and mostly by wrecking.

Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation became heir to the PSNC (Philippines Steam and Navigation Company) fleet and operations. The Laurel-Langley Treaty dictated that in 1974 the Americans no longer have the right to do business here as if they are Philippine nationals (they have a right previously because of the Parity Amendment to the Philippine Constitution). But after 1974, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not buy a liner anymore and just relied mainly on a few small liners plus the trio of liners ordered by Everett Steamship in Japan in 1955 and the former “FS” ships they already had and the once from PSNC. These ships were already showing signs of mortality as they were already entering their fourth decade of service.

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A liner from Everett SS that went to Aboitiz (Photo credit: Aboitiz Transport System)

Sweet Lines, after acquiring liners that were among the biggest and the best for a decade which pulled them up in the totem pole of liners had the puzzling decision to just buy small liners in the later 1970’s. This happened in a situation when their liners from Europe were already over two decades old. In those times due to weaker metallurgy and finishing, 30 years is almost the longest service that can be expected from liners built in the 1950’s and so this means Sweet Lines has a future problem in the 1980’s. Did Sweet Lines think the 1980’s will be better?

The combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, successor companies to the broken-up Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. also had the same policy decision as Sweet Lines, that is to just buy small liners (many can even be just classified as passenger-cargo ships). Meanwhile, the old Escano Lines also stopped buying ships in 1974 like Aboitiz when they acquired the small Katipunan.

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The former MV Katipunan (Photo credit: Edison Sy)

All in all, from 1973, only Sulpicio Lines and William Lines acquired big, fast cruiser liners. Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, Sweet Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation all stopped buying big liners especially the fast cruiser liners (and that type is beyond the means of minor liner shipping companies including Madrigal Shipping). Maybe one reason is the steep cost already of liners because of devaluation, maybe it was the general economic difficulties which produce conservatism in businessmen, maybe it was also procrastination and hoping the next decade will be better.

And so it was not a surprise that in the 1980’s, from a rough equality of the top companies after the break-up of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. in 1972, the liner scene was dominated by Sulpicio Lines and William Lines because they were the only ones which bet on the new ruling paradigm, the fast cruiser liners. The other simply lost their way or maybe even their enthusiasm and were just waiting for better days.

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Photo credits: Phil. Daily Express and Gorio Belen

I must admire not the depth of the pockets of the two but the Japanese agents which bet and trusted Sulpicio Lines and William Lines. I think that was the critical factor why the two kept getting fast cruiser liners even though the economic climate was not good over-all. Sulpicio Lines continuously acquired retired cruisers from RKK Lines and William Lines from Arimura Sangyo (the later “A” Line). Incidentally, both are Okinawa shipping lines. So their fast cruiser liners competed in Japan and they continued their rivalry here.

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

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

The next decade, the 1980’s, was even more difficult and it resulted in the death of so many liner companies, both major and minor. A new leading paradigm will emerge then, the RORO liners. Some majors will awaken from their stupor and try to compete again. Among them were Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. Negros Navigation will also be among them after they also slowed down in buying cruisers (they were not in danger then because their cruisers liners were new and they had a monopoly of Bacolod port).

And that is how the chips broke in the 1970’s. Another time of trouble will happen three decades later but then that is another story worth another article.

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Sweet Lines and the DFDS Connection

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Sweet Faith by Karsten Petersen

DFDS is the abbreviation of Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab A/S (literally “The United Shipping Company” because it is a merger of three shipping companies). It is a Danish shipping company which is the biggest in Northern Europe. Now that reminds me that Maersk (or A.P. Moller-Maersk Group), the biggest shipping company in the whole world is also Danish. It seems the Danish are low-key and not used to trumpeting their horns but they really know shipping. It also sets me thinking that the more heralded shipping Greeks might then just be overrated because of Onassis who was tops in self-promotion. DFDS is an old, highly regarded shipping line that was established in 1866 and that was exactly 150 years ago. The company is both into passenger and cargo shipping historically and now they even have subsidiaries.

Sweet Lines Incorporated is a Philippine shipping company which started as the the Central Shipping Company in Bohol and they only changed name in 1961. Later, to handle their cargo/container shipping, Sweet Lines resurrected that company in 1981 while continuing to use the company Sweet Lines for passenger liner shipping. Sweet Lines actually started before World War II, was interrupted by the war like all other shipping companies then and they continued again after the war using mainly former “F” ships from the US Navy. They were then just a regional shipping company but a dominant regional with routes linking Bohol, Siquijor, Cebu, Leyte and Northern Mindanao along with a few other ports of calls in other parts of Central Philippines.

In 1965, the liner company General Shipping Company quit local shipping and then went into the overseas routes. They sold their local fleet along with its franchises and half of those ended up with Sweet Lines. That provided the opening for a dominant regional player to become a player in the national liner shipping scene. Except for one local-built luxury liner which became the Sweet Rose, all other ships conveyed from General Shipping were former “FS” ships which were the backbone of the Philippine inter-island shipping fleet after the war but which was already getting long in the teeth twenty years hence.

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Photo credit: Manila Chronicle, National Library and Gorio Belen

In 1966, Sweet Lines bought the only liner of Royal Lines, the Princesa and renamed this to Sweet Peace. The next year, they bought the third Governor Wright from Southern Lines and renamed this into Sweet Sail. What is remarkable about these acquisitions is these two ships are better and faster than the former “FS” that was a war surplus of the USA. In 1967, Sweet Lines was sailing these two to Manila with the bigger Sweet Rose and the Sweet Ride, their only ex-”FS” ship in a liner route.

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Photo credit: Manila Chronicle, National Library and Gorio Belen

What Sweet Lines did was they actually handed down to their regional routes their three other ex-”FS” ships from General Shipping Company thus bolstering their regional routes. These were the former General del Pilar, General Trias and General Lim. Since General Shipping always interchanged the names of their ships they then better be identified also with their IMO Numbers to avoid confusion. The three had the IDs IMO 6117992, IMO 6118023 and IMO 6117937 initially. In a change of IDs they were later the IMO 5127762, IMO 5127889 and IMO 5127736, respectively. Under Sweet Lines, the three became the first Sweet Trip, the first Sweet Ride and the first Sweet Hope, respectively. Where before, Sweet Lines only had former “F” ships for the regional battles, now they had also the bigger and better ex-”FS” ships.

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Photo credit: Philippine Herald, National Library and Gorio Belen

This early as a liner company, Sweet Lines’ template was beginning to show – they were not content to simply match the competitors’ fleet and here I am talking of quality and not of numbers. Up to 1967, the liner fleets of most of their competitors still consisted of former “FS” ships and some were lengthened former “F” ships.

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Photo credit: The Philippines Herald, National Library and Gorio Belen

The next moves of Sweet Lines confirmed their model of building their fleet. Their next seven ship acquisitions from 1967 to 1973, for an average of a ship each year consisted of ships acquired from Europe. Five of these were from DFDS and among them was the great Sweet Faith. The two others were no less than the five. One was a brand-new liner built in West Germany, the Sweet Grace and the other was a luxury liner from Italy, the former Caralis, a luxury liner even in Italy which became the first Sweet Home and biggest liner of Sweet Lines until then and one of the few liners in the country then that was over 100 meters in length.

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Sweet Bliss by Karsten Petersen

Getting five passenger ships one after the other showed the DFDS connection of Sweet Lines. During this period the additional ship requirements of our liner fleets was being sourced from Europe as there were no more available war surplus ships from the USA and there was not yet a significant volume of surplus passenger ships from Japan. Among the local liner companies it was Go Thong & Co., Compania Maritima and William Lines along with the upstart Dacema Lines that were sourcing ships from Europe in significant number during this time.

Of the five ships from DFDS, the most prominent of course and which became the flagship of Sweet Lines in the 1970’s was the Sweet Faith. This ship was a luxury liner even in Europe and was fast. She just sailed the premier Manila-Cebu route and that was paradigm-changing because she started the era of fast cruisers in the postwar years and by just sticking to one particular route without an intermediate port of call. She also launched what was called the “flagship wars” when William Lines decided to match her with the Cebu City. Sulpicio Lines later joined this war with their Don Sulpicio which was the later infamous Dona Paz. Sweet Home also joined this “flagship wars” in 1973 as pair to Sweet Faith doing only the Manila-Cebu route and she was also a fast cruiser aside from being a luxury liner.

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Photo credit: Times Journal, National Library and Gorio Belen

The other four ships from DFDS were passenger-cargo ships in Europe that has a small passenger capacity and which has a cargo boom bisecting the passenger accommodation below the bridge and the scantling at the stern. All four were built by Helsingor Vaerft in Elsinore, Denmark like the Sweet Faith. The four were actually a pair of sister ships. They were also by no means small.

The first that came here were the sisters ships Elsinore, Denmark and Birkholm which arrived in 1967 and 1969, respectively. Here, the were renamed into the Sweet Bliss and the Sweet Life (this ship was later renamed into Sweet Dream). The Broager was actually the younger ship having been built in 1953 while the Birkholm was built in 1950. At 92 meters length, the two were already among the biggest liners in country then with a median speed but certainly a little faster than the war surplus types from the USA, the ex-”FS” ships, the ex-”Y” ships, the ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships and the Type N3 ships.

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The next batch that came were the Ficaria and the Primula and both came in 1972 and they were renamed into the Sweet Lord (later renamed into Sweet Land) and Sweet Love. The two were bigger than the Broager and Birkholm at 101 meters and they had a respectable speed of 14.5 knots when new. The Ficaria was built in 1951 while the Primula was built in 1952. Meanwhile, the Sweet Faith was built in 1950. So all these ships of Sweet Lines from DFDS were actually built in just one period.

By 1974, Sweet Lines was no longer using ex-”FS” ships in the liner routes as they already passed on all this type to their regional routes and to their cargo shipping division. These five ships from DFDS became the backbone of their fleet and reinforced by the Sweet Home (the luxury liner ex-Caralis from Italy), the Sweet Grace (the brand-new liner built in West Germany in 1968) and by the local-built liner Sweet Rose acquired from General Shipping.

This was the peak of the passenger fleet of Sweet Lines when even their respected rivals were still using a lot of war-surplus ships from the USA in their liner routes. At 84 meters the Sweet Rose was the smallest among the eight and that was remarkable. If the length of their liners are averaged Sweet Lines will beat all except the leading Compania Maritima and will about equal the relatively small liner fleet then of Negros Navigation. At this year Sweet Lines might have ranked 4th or 5th in fleet strength nationwide or even as high as 3rd if their regional and cargo shipping are considered. Compania Maritima was already weakening this time with a lot of sinking without new acquisitions, Go Thong & Co., had broken up in 1972 while Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and subsidiary Cebu-Bohol Ferry Company while numerous is simply loaded with old ex-”FS” ships. Actually the First Five or First Six in national shipping then were almost near equals, the first and only time I saw such near-parity.

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Photo credit: Times Journal, National Library and Gorio Belen

From such strength derived from an insistence on ship quality from the start as a national liner company and by ushering the era of fast cruisers in the postwar years and fighting well the “flagship wars,” I cannot, however. just sweep under the rug how Sweet Lines slipped from its exalted position. Imagine from being a newcomer in the national liner shipping scene in 1965 and reaching near-parity with the leading ones in just nine short years!

Maybe such expansion hit Sweet Lines more than the others when the “floating rate” of the peso (an automatic currency devaluation mechanism) especially after the “Oil Shock” of 1973 when trade balance and foreign currency shortage happened with the fast rise of petroleum products. For five years from 1973 until 1978 they did not acquire any liner. And that is in the situation that their European-sourced liners are already getting old (well, the war-surplus ships from the USA are even older).

While William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were quick to buy fast cruisers from Japan, a new ship source from the middle of the 1970’s, Sweet Lines got stuck up in those crisis years. A news item in the middle of that decade said that Sweet Lines will just concentrate on buying smaller ships and that turned out to be true because their next ship acquisitions turned out to be just in the 50-meter class which is marginal size for a liner. That size of ships they purchased in the late 1970’s were just the size of the ex-”FS” ships and with just the same speed, actually. If that was not regression, I don’t know what is.

Sweet Home

Well, that inaction also happened to Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corp., Escano Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc.+Lorenzo Shipping Corp. (the two had combined operations there before separating in a few years) and Madrigal Shipping and to all the minor liner shipping companies. The consistent move of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines determined their leading position later (is this what Ana Madrigal later said was “dirty”?). Meanwhile, the slide of the others can be traced to that.

If the other shipping companies that did not make the bold move to fast cruisers thought the next decade will be better, then they probably got the shock of their lives when the economy got worse, much worse in the 1980’s. Financial and political crisis grew with the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and there was widespread discontent. The 1980’s turned into a “massacre decade” for our shipping when most of our liner companies, major and minor, did not survive that decade alive.

Sweet Lines survived that decade alive but they were no longer first rank. Soon they will crash out too. But as they say, that is another story (and worth another article). Abangan!

The Flagship Wars in the Manila-Cebu Route

In the first 15 years after World War II there was not much of what was later called “the flagship wars”. How can there be flagship wars when it was an ex-”FS” ship battling another ex-”FS” ship? The ex-“FS” ship were just small World War II surplus ships from the US Navy that were slow and lumbering just like the freighters. And with the basicness of the ex-”FS” ships, there was really no “luxury” to talk about when there was no airconditioning, no real amenities, no entertainment (unless one brings out a guitar and croons), no true lounges or even enough space to walk about. There were bigger ships like the Type C1-M-AV1 which were also war surplus ships from the US Navy but they were also basic ships and also lack speed (both the two mentioned types only sail at about 11 knots which was also the sailing speed of the general cargo ships). As general rule, cargo ships converted for passenger use do not produce luxury liners. If ever, it would be the former refrigerated cargo ships that can be made into luxury liners or else the best is to buy former luxury liners from Europe.

The Manila-Cebu route was and is still the premier shipping route in the Philippines. This route connects the primary metropolis and manufacturing center to the secondary metropolis and manufacturing center of the country. Hence, the movement of people and goods would be highest in this route. If there is a next premier route it would be the Manila-Iloilo route. The Manila-Cebu route is also the gateway to the routes to Northern Mindanao while the Manila-Iloilo route is the gateway to the routes to Western Mindanao and Southern Mindanao.

The early postwar liners calling on Cebu did not have an exclusive route to Cebu much like the prewar liners. From Cebu they will still go to Northern Mindanao ports or even sail to Southern Mindanao ports via Zamboanga. It was not unusual then for liners to have five ports of call in a voyage. That was why complete voyages then to Cebu and Northern Mindanao took one week and complete voyages to Cebu and Southern Mindanao took two weeks. In the latter a liner might have seven ports of call. As they say, “the better to pack ’em in.”

When luxury liners first came they funnily have the code “airconditioned” (airconditioning was rare then). And the word “luxury” also began to be bandied about. In terms of speed they were significantly better than the basic ex-”FS” ships and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. Some of the earliest local liners were the trio from Everett Steamship being sailed by Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), the Elcano, Legaspi and Cagayan de Oro which all came in 1955, the Luzon (1959) and Visayas (1963) of Compania Maritima which were doing dual local and foreign routes, the General Roxas (1960) and General del Pilar (1961) of General Shipping Corp., the President Quezon (1960) of Philippine President Lines (which became the Quezon of Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 and later the Pioneer Iloilo of the same company in 1965), the Governor B. Lopez (1961) of Southern Lines Inc., the Fatima of Escano Lines (1964).

If one will notice, there is no mention here of a ship of Go Thong & Co. or William Lines and definitely there is no error in the list. In that roost, the President Quezon ruled in speed department at 18 knots and the next fastest to her sailed at only 16 knots with the tailender at 12 knots which was just about the same as the ex-”FS” ships and the ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. That was the picture of the luxury ship sector of the Philippines two decades after World War II.

In that era, there was no “flagship wars” as understood a decade later. Maybe if the better ships were all doing long routes it will be a wonder where and how they will compete. This is especially true for the luxury liners sailing to Cebu and then proceeding to many southern ports up to Davao. I noticed the tight “flagship wars” started only when there were already true fast cruisers and when the route was exclusively limited to Manila-Cebu.

It was Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines, a newcomer in liner shipping which started the true “flagship wars” in 1970. They were able to acquire that ship which was a luxury liner even in Europe and she was really fast. When she came she became the new postwar benchmark in speed at 20 knots and beating handsomely all the other contenders by at least 2 knots. Maybe she only did the Manila-Cebu route because she had to stress the capture of passengers because she can’t take in a significant amount of cargo. And with her accommodations all-airconditioned that was really more fit for the Manila-Cebu route which not only had more sector passengers and the better-off passengers were also there including the Cebu and Central Visayas rich who were afraid to take planes then. With such a kind of ship Sweet Lines really had to stress in ads her speed, her amenities and her brand of passenger service to capture more passengers.

She was very successful in that strategy and her repute spread far and wide and she earned many praises. It was really a paradigm change in how to do sailing and maybe that was a little too much for the older shipping companies to swallow the noise and swagger of the newcomer. William Lines had a brand-new ship, the Misamis Occidental in the same year she was fielded but she was clearly outmatched by the Sweet Faith because maybe when they finalized the design of the ship they did not see Sweet Faith coming to upset the chart.

The biggest shipping company then, the Compania Maritima, which had the resources to compete did not react and continued their stress on the route passing through Cebu before sailing for Western and Southern Mindanao up to Davao. That was also the response (or lack of response) and strategy of the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Co. which would be later known as Aboitiz Shipping Corp. and besides their luxury trio were already 15 years and outmatched and so maybe they thought they really have no option at all except to not really compete. Meanwhile, Escano Line’s priority was not really Cebu at all, its ships cannot really compete as they did not stress speed when they ordered their brand-new ships. Go Thong & Co. might have been too busy in their European expansion through Universal Shipping and maybe they thought getting all the copra in all the ports possible made more sense (they had lots of small ships for that purpose). General Shipping Corp. and Southern Lines Inc. were also gone and Galaxy Lines, the successor to the Philippine Pioneer Lines was also near to floundering already. Negros Navigation Company, meanwhile, was not competing in the Cebu route and it is in the Manila-Iloilo route where they were flexing the muscles of their brand-new liners.

For two years until 1972 Sweet Faith ruled the Manila-Cebu route. It will be up to a shipping company which long relied solely on ex-”FS” ships (until 1966) to challenge Sweet Faith with their upcoming newbuilding which will turn out to be the liner Cebu City. A sister ship of the liner Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company, she was fitted with bigger engines. Since Don Juan can only do 19 knots maybe they decided on bigger engines to be able to compete with the 20 knots of Sweet Faith. Cebu City came in 1972 that began the battle royale of the two flagships whose intensity passed the two ships to shipping folklore long after both ships were gone (only the millennials would not have heard of their battles).

In 1973, the liner Sweet Home of Sweet Lines arrived to form a “tag team” to battle Cebu City. She was not as fast as the two at 18 knots but she was bigger and as luxurious as the Sweet Faith because she was already a luxury ship in Europe when she was still the known as the Caralis.

In 1975, Sulpicio Lines joined the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” when they acquired the second Don Sulpicio from RKK in Japan. Unlike their previous ships this liner had no cargo ship origins. A fast cruiser at 18 knots and with accommodations much like the Cebu City she was also a legit contender. In this wars it is not only speed that was advertised but also punctuality of departures. That is aside from the food, the amenities and the passenger service.

In 1976, the newly-arrived Dona Ana also joined this fray. She was a sister ship of Don Sulpicio but faster at 19 knots and newer. However, she was a Manila-Cebu-Davao ship and she only competed in the Manila-Cebu leg as a “tag team” too with the second Don Sulpicio. Dona Ana also started a new paradigm on her own, the fast cruiser to Davao which she can do in only three days compared to nearly a week of the others. The flagship of Compania Maritima, the liner Filipinas was forced to respond by cutting ports of call and announcing they will sail the Davao route in only 4 days. In a sense this was also a “flagship war”. Later, the Dona Ana became a replacement flagship in the Manila-Cebu route when Don Sulpicio was hit by a bad fire in 1979 and her repairs took two years. By that time, it was another new fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines, the Don Enrique (later the Davao Princess) that was battling the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima in the Davao route along with the liner Manila City of William Lines [there will be a future article on these Manila-Davao fast cruiser battles].

Sweet Faith and Sweet Home lasted just less than a decade in the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” because they were already old ships when they first came here. Sweet Home quit earlier about 1978 and Sweet Faith quit in 1980. However, even before she quit, the new flagship of William Lines, the Dona Virginia has already arrived. She will be linked in an epic battle not with a flagship of Sweet Lines but with a flagship of Sulpicio Lines. This liner is the Philippine Princess which came in 1981. Dona Virginia had the upperhand as she was faster, bigger and more beautiful-looking and she ruled the Manila-Cebu route. Both were exclusively Manila-Cebu ferries and like those that came in the 1970s they had no cargo ship origins. In this decade Compania Maritima was no longer in the running as they no longer had new ship acquisitions and in fact they quit when the financial and political crises spawned by the Ninoy Aquino assassination broke out.

After an interregnum of two years without a dedicated Manila-Cebu liner, Sweet Lines brought out their new challenger, the luxurious Sweet RORO but she was smaller and her speed was slightly inferior to the flagships of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines. However, she was as luxurious if not more so and she trumpeted an all-airconditioned accommodations and she was a true RORO which was the new type and paradigm that was gaining already. Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corp. gave up all semblance of a fight and just concentrated in container shipping. The Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping Corp. also withdrew from the Cebu route for practical purposes. Escano Lines were also not buying ships like Aboitiz Shipping and also were not contenders. Negros Navigation Company, like before was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

Suddenly, in 1988, Sulpicio Lines did what was equivalent to exploding a grenade in the competition. They were able to acquire the Filipina Princess which broke all local records in size and speed. It was far bigger and far faster than the Dona Virginia of William Lines and was a true RORO. Even though William Lines was able to acquire the RORO liner Sugbu in 1990, she was not a bigger or a faster ship than the Dona Virginia she was replacing as flagship. To rub salt on wound, in the same year Sulpicio Lines also acquired the Cotabato Princess and the Nasipit Princess which were also bigger than the Dona Virginia (and Sugbu) though not as fast. So for few years, in terms of size, Sulpicio Lines possessed the No. 1, 2 and 3 position in terms of ship size.

As to the others, in 1987, Sweet Lines was able to acquire the Sweet Baby but she was not as big as the William Lines and Sulpicio flagships nor can she match them really in speed. Soon, Escano Lines would be quitting liner shipping. There was really a big “consolidation” in the liner shipping industry, a euphemism to cover the fact that a lot of liner shipping companies sank in that horrendous decade for shipping that was the 1980’s. Again, Negros Navigation Company was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

With this “consolidation” it just became a mano-a-mano between Sulpicio Lines and William Lines in the Manila-Cebu route with the others reduced more or less to bystanders….

[There is a sequel to this describing the “flagship wars” of the 1990’s.]

The Sweet Grace and Sweet Faith and Their Impact for Sweet Lines

The “Sweet Grace” and “Sweet Faith” were two luxury liners that came for Sweet Lines in 1968 and 1970, respectively. These two liners had a lot to do in establishing Sweet Lines not only as a legit liner shipping company in the Philippines but also as one of the majors. As a liner company, Sweet Lines was a relative latecomer in this field as they only ascended to this in 1965. Their competitors Compania Maritima, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (the partnership of Everett Steamship and Aboitiz Shipping), Escano Lines, William Lines , Carlos A. Go Thong & Co., Madrigal Shipping and Philippine President Lines started way early than them. But Sweet Lines’ rise was fast and this was helped by some astute moves like the purchase of “Sweet Grace” and “Sweet Faith” (this is the first “Sweet Faith”, a clarification since another liner of theirs also carried that name later). This was also helped by the acquisition of “Sweet Rose” locally and by the first “Sweet Home” from Italy.

Sweet Lines actually had pre-World War II origins as the Central Shipping Company. They originated in Bohol and they only changed their name in 1961. Actually, almost anyone who knew them always thought of them as a Bohol shipping company and so Bol-anons were always proud of them. After the war, the company grew to be a regional major with lines from Bohol to Northern Mindanao and Cebu and lines from Cebu to Leyte and Northern Mindanao. But they were not a multi-day liner company yet then as they were just sailing overnight and short-distance routes.

Then in 1965, the liner company General Shipping Company decided to quit local routes and just engage in shipping to the Far East after a board room squabble. With that, General Shipping began to dispose of their liners and franchises and half of those went to Sweet Lines (and the other half went to Aboitiz Shipping Corporation). Three of those liners were ex-FS ships and there is nothing noteworthy there but the fourth one was noteworthy. It was the former “General Roxas” (the second to carry that name in the fleet of General Shipping) and this was one of the two brand-new local-built liners from NASSCO in Mariveles, Bataan that was ordered in 1960 and 1961. The two were sister ships.

They were relatively big for a liner during those early days with the “General Roxas” at 84.7 meters by 12.3 meters. In cubic capacity she had 1,757 gross register tons and 968 net register tons. What was notable was they were already equipped with airconditioning when the very common ex-World War II ships then were not airconditioned like the ex-FS ships and bigger ex-C1-M-AV1. “General Roxas” became the “Sweet Rose” in the Sweet Lines fleet after coming over in 1965. For most of her career in Sweet Lines, this liner held the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route for the company (yes, that was still an important liner route in those days; now that is bread and butter for the intermodal buses).

In 1968, from a soft loan by West Germany through the Philippine Government, Sweet Lines was able to order the “Sweet Grace”, a brand-new liner. This ship was built by Actiengessellschaft ‘Weser’ Seebeckwerpt in Bremerhaven, Germany with the ID IMO 6806951 at a cost of PhP 6.4 million (no typo there; now that money will just buy a high-end BMW). She was a cruiser with two masts, two passenger decks and a cargo boom at the front. The ship had a raked stem and a cruiser stern and a single center funnel. She measured 88.0 meters by 12.8 meters with a depth of 7.1 meters. Her cubic measures was 1,489 gross register tons and her load capacity was 1,590 deadweight tons. Her net tonnage was 690 and her passenger capacity was 18 persons in first class cabins and 650 persons in second class and third class.

The “Sweet Grace” was billed as a luxury liner (most liners then were actually converted cargo-passenger ships). She had an airconditioned lounge and dining salons, a lounge, a bar, piped-in music, TVs and movies – those were what defined a luxury liner then and especially the presence of airconditioning. The ship also had modern navigational aids and those were mainly radar and LORAN then. That is a take against the ex-FS ships which had no radar and which mainly relied on the old compasses and astrolabes. This liner had a single Atlas-MAK engine developing 2,950 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 15.5 knots. She was first deployed to the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban and Manila-Cebu routes.

In 1970, Sweet Lines acquired the luxury liner “H.P. Prior” from Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab A/S, which is more commonly known as DFDS, a major Danish and European shipping company. She was built by Helsingor Vaerft in Elsinore, Denmark in 1950 and she had the permanent ID IMO 5139131. She had two masts, three decks and a prominent single center funnel. The ship had a raked stem and a retrousse stern. She was bigger than Sweet Grace at 104.0 meters by 14.9 meters with 3,155 gross register tons. She also measured at 1,814 net register tons and 903 deadweight tons. This liner had a passenger capacity of 1,166 with 310 of that in cabins and the rest in airconditioned dormitories including third class. Her superstructure was practically untouched when she came here. She was equipped with two Helsingor-B & W engines with 7,620 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 20 knots, a speed she carried on even here, the first local liner to have that speed. She was our fastest liner in 1970, displacing from the throne the liner “Galaxy” of Galaxy Lines.

She was a luxury liner in the truest sense of the word and her comfort and amenities were higher than the liners which came before her. There was an airconditioned dining salon, an airconditioned economy cafeteria and all the passenger areas were airconditioned. For entertainment there were TVs and a mini-theater with movies (this was not common then), stereo music (also not common then) and a supper club (it was an sundown to midnight relaxation/lounging area with drinks, “pulutan” and entertainment by a band which was called a “combo” then). There were four third class dormitories which were all airconditioned (no, that was not an innovation by Aboitiz Transport System). And there was even a two-level sundeck which was popular for passengers for sightseeing, catching the breeze and for socializing. “Sweet Faith” defined what was a luxury liner then. She also defined what was “fast”.

In 1973, another European luxury liner came to Sweet Lines, the former “Caralis” of Tirrenea Spa di Navale of Italy which was built in 1957 by the Navalmeccanica in Castellamare, Italy. In the Sweet Lines fleet she became the second “Sweet Home”. She was a bigger liner than “Sweet Faith”, just as luxurious but not as fast. She was then paired by Sweet Lines with “Sweet Faith” in trying to dominate the Manila-Cebu route. The two were dedicated ships there and they sailed four times a week to Cebu and four times a week to Manila. Sweet Lines advertised them as the “Inimitable Mates”. “Sweet Home” measured 120.4 meters by 16.0 meters with 5,480 gross register tons (GRT) and 3,043 net register tons (NRT) in cubic measurements. Her NRT alone was already bigger than most of the liners of that era and that is just the measurement of the area dedicated to the passengers. The ship had a single Ansaldo engine of 6,200 horsepower which was good for 18 knots when new. Here she was only good for about 16 knots or so. “Sweet Home” had a passengers capacity of 1,200 which was probably the biggest in that era.

All these four liners had a big role in establishing Sweet Lines quick in the passenger liner field. There were other shipping companies that had bigger fleets than them. But what degraded them was that they were still reliant on the small, slow and vulnerable ex-FS ships even on the long routes like the routes to Davao and General Santos City (Dadiangas). These kind of ships were even still in use then in primary ports like Cebu and Iloilo while Sweet Lines began retiring their ex-FS ships from Manila routes when they had already these good liners. So Sweet Lines might not have had a big fleet then but their fleet spoke of quality. Actually if their primary liners then had a weakness it was that they can’t carry much cargo.

Sweet Lines liners were known for prompt departures while many other competitors gave priority to cargo. That means if there was still cargo to be loaded then the ship will still not leave even though it was already past departure time. And that was actually oppressive to most of the passengers as it can be hot in the third class sections of the ships especially during summers. Sweet Lines actually led in airconditioning in that liner era. So while Sweet Lines (not “Sweat Lines”) might have been gone now, many people still remember them for comfort and also the size of their liners then.

In the 1970’s, the fast cruiser liners came and that was the new flag bearer of that era offering shorter travel times in the major routes. Being old ships already when they came here “Sweet Faith” and “Sweet Home” did not last very long. Sweet Lines did not acquire fast cruiser liners like what William Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation did. “Sweet Grace” was still relatively new then but she was not fast in the first place. In the 1970’s, 18 knots already became the definition of what was “fast”.

I noticed in shipping that those who failed to follow the new paradigm lose their place in the hierarchy and that was what happened to Sweet Lines (and to some other liner companies like Compania Maritima, Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company and Aboitiz Shipping Company, Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping). They tried a shortcut to the RORO era like what Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. did. But then maybe, both did not have enough steam for that leap. Other competitors also acquired RORO liners but they still also had their fast cruisers which Sweet Lines did not have. Still, overall, the 1970’s was a good decade for Sweet Lines. And to think they only came in the liner field in 1965. It was in the 1980’s when they started falling back. But then again that is another story….

[Photo Owner: Karsten Petersen]
[Research Support: Gorio Belen]
[Database Support: Jun Marquez/Mike Baylon/PSSS]