The Iloilo-Zamboanga Route

In the past, the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was an important route. Iloilo and Zamboanga are among the top trade and commercial centers of the country for a long time already (in the Top 5 for so long now) and it only makes sense to connect the two for after all, Iloilo is the main commercial center of Western Visayas and Zamboanga is the main commercial center of Western Mindanao (talking of geographical regions and not the political-administrative regions).

The links of the two are not just recent. In fact, the two centers have already been connected for over a century now starting even in the late Spanish rule when sea lanes were already safe and there was already steam power. And before World War II, foreign vessels (mainly British) from Singapore even came to the two cities to trade and bring passengers and mail, too.

The route of the Manila ships going to southern Mindanao in the past goes either via Cebu or Iloilo (which is the western and most direct route). From those two ports and other ports along the way the passenger-cargo ships will then dock in Zamboanga. In the first 30 years after World War II the route via Cebu was the heavily favored one by the shipping companies. After that, the favor turned to Iloilo slowly until Cebu was practically no longer a gateway to southern Mindanao (only Sulpicio Lines did that route in the later decades through the Filipina Princess and the Princess of New Unity).

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The Dona Marilyn as Dona Ana (a former image in Wikimedia)

Maybe the emergence of the fast cruiser liners dictated the shift to Iloilo. If they go via Iloilo, a complete voyage in less than a week’s time is guaranteed. If they go via Cebu, the fast cruiser liners then probably had to go via the eastern seaboard of Mindanao to catch up and complete the voyage in a week’s time (so that a regular weekly sailing can be maintained). But in the eastern seaboard they will miss the cargo and passenger load that is available in Zamboanga port. The small ports of Mati, Bislig or Surigao are a poor compensation for that but the fast cruiser liners might not even have the speed and time to spare to call in any of those ports. Moreover, if the ship intends to call in General Santos City (Dadiangas before), then a western route via Iloilo and Zamboanga is almost dictated. General Santos City’s combined cargo and passengers are simply to big to be left out by a liner going to Davao.

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Credit to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After World War II, it was the Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC) and Carlos A. Go Thong & Company (the predecessor company of Gothong Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping) which had passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling on Iloilo and Zamboanga on the way to southern ports. The former even used their best ships, the luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano on that route. Amazingly, the leader Compania Maritima and William Lines did not do the route passing through Iloilo as both preferred to do the route via Cebu to connect to Zamboanga (and Southern Mindanao). Then the situation was reversed in the 1970’s when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor of PSNC stopped that connection (as they were running out of good passenger ships) and Sulpicio Lines did the route in 1974 after the route became a casualty of the split of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company. Then in 1976, Compania Maritima followed suit and connected also Southern Mindanao via Iloilo and Zamboanga.

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Credit to Gorio Belen

In 1979, with the arrival of the Don Eusebio, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liner type between Iloilo and Zamboanga. Don Eusebio, the latter Dipolog Princess had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Later her route was shifted to Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas. However, the Dona Marilyn was used to maintain the route ending in Cotabato and when the Cotabato Princess arrived in 1988, Sulpicio substituted the new RORO liner there while the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route was maintained by the Don Eusebio. In this period, the main rival of Sulpicio Lines which is William Lines bypassed Iloilo as did Sweet Lines, another liner company with a route to as far as Davao.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

In the early 1990′s, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation made a comeback in Southern Mindanao and their SuperFerry 3 which had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route connected Iloilo and Zamboanga. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines substituted their new Princess of the Pacific in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route while their Cotabato Princess was kept in the route ending in Cotabato (but which is now calling also in Estancia.

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SuperFerry 3 by Britz Salih

When WG&A was created they also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga mainly through their Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and the trio of SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 (which had about the same cruising speed) mainly held that route when it was still WG&A. When the company began selling liners and it became Aboitiz Transport System other ships subsequently held the route (too many to keep track really as they are fond of juggling ship assignments and they were also disposing ships and buying new ones). At one time there was also a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route. It was a wonder for me why the Davao ships of WG&A and ATS don’t normally call in Zamboanga while calling in Iloilo when it is just on the way and the companies use pairing of ships so an exact weekly schedule for one ship need not be met.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

When Negros Navigation (Nenaco) started doing southern Mindanao routes in 1998 they also connected the two ports on their separate routes to General Santos City and Davao (the two routes was coalesced later). However, early in the new millennium Negros Navigation abandoned their Southern Mindanao routes but maintained their Manila-Bacolod-Iloilo-Zamboanga route until they had problems of ship availability. The early ships of Negros Navigation in the route were the St. Ezekiel Moreno and San Lorenzo Ruiz. However, it seems the Don Julio started the Iloilo-Zamboanga route for Negros Navigation earlier than the two.

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Don Julio by John Ward

Amazingly a regional shipping line, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) of Cebu also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga in 1988. This was the Asia Korea (later the Asia Hongkong and now the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) which did a Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route (which I say was a brave and optimistic try). They were only able to maintain the route for a few years, however.

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Asia Korea (from a TASLI framed photo)

In the second decade of the millennium, the successor to WG&A, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) dropped the routes to Davao, General Santos City and Cotabato. Suddenly the route to Zamboanga became threatened because Zamboanga port alone cannot fill 150-meter RORO liners. Not long after this ATS stopped the route to Zamboanga citing threats from the Abu Sayyaf Group (while at the same time their container ships continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao). It seems to me the reason they put forward was just a canard especially since 2GO still calls in Zamboanga. ATS was just losing in the Southern Mindanao route because they have the highest cargo rates in the industry and by this time the passengers were already migrating to other forms of transport like the budget airlines.

It was a debacle for the route since when Aboitiz Transport System stopped sailing it Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines have already stopped sailing too for entirely different reasons. Negros Navigation compacted its route system and it had the problem of ship reliability and availability during their period of company rehabilitation while Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars sinking (and they never went back again to full passenger sailing until they quit it entirely). Negros Navigation was still sailing off and on to Zamboanga when they took over ATS.

When the new route system was rolled out after the merger of Negros Navigation and ATS, amazingly the route to Zamboanga was scrubbed out. Later, the successor company 2GO went back to Zamboanga but the ship calls in Dumaguete already and not in Iloilo anymore.

Until now there is no passenger ship that connects Iloilo and Zamboanga. Passengers then have to take the roundabout Ceres bus passing through Dapitan, Dumaguete and it has an endpoint in Bacolod. From there the passengers have to take a separate ferry to Iloilo or via Dumangas. The length and the many transfers means this is a really uncomfortable trip and a disservice to passengers. Maybe the liners have already forgotten they are also in public service and profitability is not the only gauge in shipping.

If there is ever a connection now between the two great trading centers it is just via container ships now.

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Why Not Iloilo Ferries?

Many decades ago, I was wondering when I first heard the “Queen City of the South” monicker of Iloilo City because I thought it belonged to Cebu City. It was only later when I learned from reading that there was a time when Iloilo City can stand toe-to-toe with Cebu City and that it had a great past entering the 20th century. And that standing was propped up when sugar cane was still gold.

One of the requisites for a city to be great is not only manufacturing. It must also have great transportation links and this is one ace of Cebu City. Cebu has so many shipping companies with many routes and ports of call and so the goods of Cebu reach many islands and places. Conversely, goods needed by Cebu including food to feed its big populace are always available with reasonable prices. Like when I see packed vegetables from Bukidnon, I know many of it are headed to Cebu. I will also then see ads for Fighter Wine which is needed to fuel the muscles of the farmers and cargadores handling those vegetables.

There are probably many reasons why over the decades Cebu City outstripped Iloilo City. And one of those reasons is probably the difference in their shipping where Cebu City far outstrips Iloilo City. While Cebu has a dozen or so homegrown passenger shipping companies some of which are of national stature, Iloilo can barely list a few and most are small. Add to this the fact that Cebu City has perhaps two dozen or more cargo shipping companies and LCT operators while Iloilo City has only a few. These differences alone are more than reason for the disparity of the two cities now. An industry like shipping has a multiplier effect. And that is the reason why Cebu has Tayud, the Navotas counterpart of the shipyard row in the south. And Cebu has many mariners each of whom if deployed abroad contribute to the the economy of their hometowns.

There was a proposal for a petition to be sent to 2GO for the revival of Cebu Ferries. I respectfully disagree. There are so many Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao shipping companies already and some had shown great growth and aggressiveness in the past and among them are Cokaliong Shipping Lines, Lite Ferries, Roble Shipping and Medallion Transport. It will be hard to beat them now when they were not beaten when they were still not that strong. And factor in that the last three are also strong in cargo shipping and in transporting vehicles.

Maybe if 2GO and Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) want to expand to regional operations and maybe to bolster their bases Iloilo City and Bacolod City then they better just establish “Iloilo Ferries” rather than resurrecting Cebu Ferries. It will not be anthema to the company as they already have the equivalent of “Batangas Ferries”. This is what actually became of their Cebu Ferries when it left Visayan waters.

I think Iloilo Ferries can have five routes, to wit (this is a circular listing):

Iloilo-Romblon-Batangas route

Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route

Iloilo-Bacolod-Zamboanga route with a possible extension to General Santos City

Iloilo-Bacolod-Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro route

Iloilo-Cebu route

An Iloilo hub should be able to handle transshipment to other routes like goods from Zamboanga should be transferred to a Batangas or Cebu ship if the cargo is intended for that.

Anent the third route, an Iloilo-Zamboanga ship is needed because that connection has been lost when for a century it has been existing. When that was lost the passengers have to take the uncomfortable bus which has double the transit time.

Regarding the last, why should Trans-Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping Lines have all the fun? That is also the reason for the second route. Why default it to Montenegro Shipping Lines and Milagrosa Shipping?

The fourth route should be able to load vehicles at reasonable rates to better fill up the ship and compete with the Dapitan-Dumaguete ferry.

Regarding the choice of ships, I suggest to just invest in 80 to 100 meter ferries just like what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping Lines use. If the route is potentially weak there is no dishonor in settling for 60 to 70 meter ferries like what Aleson Shipping uses for Jolo, Bongao and Sandakan. And that is what might be needed for the Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route.

If there is a shipping line with an Iloilo hub and also serving Bacolod then products of Western Visayas (I am using the old regional grouping) will be pushed and promoted and at the same time products from other regions needed by Western Visayas will also be made available and probably at cheaper prices. Like I know how cheap some products are in Zamboanga and these are not only barter goods. George & Peter Lines is not bashful taking in canned sardines, dried fish and even ginamos for this help fill up their ship and those are really cheap and Zamboanga and the city hosts some 7 canneries.

Dipolog (not Dapitan port) doesn’t have a regular ship link to Manila. With the fourth route ship passengers can be transferred in Iloilo if they are not clients of the budget plane. That is also true for Zamboanga ship passengers to Manila which has only one liner per week.

Since Negros Navigation is Western Visayan then it is their duty to develop Western Visayan shipping. There is probably no need to take cudgels anymore for Cebu Ferries as 2GO is no longer a Central Visayan shipping company. It is Iloilo City, Bacolod City and Western Visayas that need more support now.

Now, isn’t “Iloilo Ferries” a great name? If there was a Cebu Ferries and a “Batangas Ferries”, how can that name not be possible? And shouldn’t Negros Navigation honor Iloilo too?

The First “Great” Merger: The Failed Saga of WG&A and CFC

When WG&A was formed it was ostensibly to combat the entry of foreign shipping companies on local inter-island routes. That was the time of many so-called “deregulation” initiatives of Fidel V. Ramos. But even then I had doubts about this as an cabotage law was in effect in the Philippines. Cabotage effectively prevents foreign shipping companies from plying local routes. And to repeal it an act of Congress is needed and I heavily doubted then that the Philippine Congress will go along with that.

It is generally accepted that it was Aboitiz Shipping that proposed this big merger. Rumors had it that the biggest shipping company, Sulpicio Lines, which was also Cebu-based was also invited but it refused and preferred to go it all alone.

The merger brought together the second, third and fourth-biggest shipping companies in the Philippines reckoned by passenger and cargo operations out of a total of five long-distance liner companies (but may I note which is in fourth place might be disputed by Negros Navigation). It had the effect of lowering the number of long-distance passenger shipping companies from five to three.

The merged company and its subsidiaries were the biggest shipping combine that ever existed in the Philippines in terms of fleet and in terms of route network. It significantly brought to that Visayas-Mindanao and intra-Visayas routes and High Speed Craft(HSC) operations. For the former, the Cebu Ferries Corp. (CFC) was formed and for the latter SuperCat was retained.

Brought into the merger were the following ferries (including their former routes):

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Mabuhay 1 (Manila-Cebu and Manila-Iloilo)
Mabuhay 2 ((Mnl-Surigao-Butuan-Tagbilaran-Mnl and Mnl-Tagbilaran-CDO)
Mabuhay 3 (Manila-Davao-Dadiangas-Manila and Manila-CDO-Iloilo-Manila)
Mabuhay 5 [after a few voyages permanent fielding overtaken by merger]
Dona Virginia (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan v.v.)
Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao)
Masbate I (Manila-Masbate-Catbalogan-Tacloban)
Zamboanga City (Manila-Puerto Princesa v.v.)
Tacloban City (Manila-Batan-Dumaguit-Dipolog v.v.)
Iligan City (Cebu-Iligan v.v.)
Misamis Occidental (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Mabuhay 6 [unfinished]

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Akita (Manila-CDO-Butuan v.v. and Manila-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Medjugorje (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Sacred Heart (Manila-Roxas-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Lourdes (Manila-Dumaguit-Palompon-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of the Rule (CDO-Cebu v.v. and CDO-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Naju (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Our Lady of Fatima (Nasipit-Cebu v.v. and Nasipit-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Iligan-Cebu v.v. and Iligan-Dumaguete v.v.)
Our Lady of Guadalupe [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Surigao v.v.]
Our Lady of Lipa (Cebu-CDO v.v.)
Dona Cristina (Cebu-Tacloban v.v. and Cebu-Palompon v.v.)
Dona Lili (Cebu-Surigao v.v. and Cebu-Maasin v.v.)
Don Calvino [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Iligan v.v.]
Our Lady of Akita 2 [unfinished]

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
SuperFerry 1 (Manila-Iloilo-GSC-Davao v.v. and Manila-Iloilo v.v.)
SuperFerry 2 (Manila-Cebu-CDO v.v.)
SuperFerry 3 (Mnl-Zamboanga-Cotabato v.v. w/ Boracay (summer) and Mnl-Dumaguit-Roxas v.v.)
SuperFerry 5 (Mnl-Cebu-Iligan-Dumaguete-Mnl) and Mnl-Dumaguete-CDO-Cebu-Mnl)
Elcano (was not used; obsolete/unreliable; supposedly not brought by ASC to the merger)
Allowing for database inaccuracies, the following cargo ships were brought to the merger:

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Peace (112.9m x 18.0m, 17kts, b. 1974)
Our Lady of Hope (99.0m x17.3m, 17kts, b.1979)

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
Aboitiz Concarrier V (69.0m x 10.9m, b. 1968)
Aboitiz Concarrier XIV (71.0m x 10.9m, 13kts, b. 1965)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier I (115.1m x17.3m, 14kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier II (102.0m x 16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier III (105.5m x16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1976)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (139.7m x 19.3m, 14kts, b. 1975)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (108.2m x20.0m, 16kts, b. 1983)

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Wilcon II
Wilcon 4
Wilcon 5
Wilcon VI
Wilcon VII
Wilcon 8
Wilcon 11
ROCON I

Excluding HSCs which were just beginning to arrive in the Philippines, the combined fleet of WG&A was nearly 50 vessels, slightly more than double the fleet of Sulpicio Lines, previously the biggest shipping company in the country.

SHIP TRANSFORMATIONS AFTER THE MERGER
Mabuhay 1 became SuperFerry10
Mabuhay 2 became SuperFerry 7
Mabuhay 3 became SuperFerry 8
Mabuhay 5 became SuperFerry 9
Mabuhay 6 became Our Lady of Good Voyage
Our Lady Akita became SuperFerry 6
Our Lady of Akita 2 became SuperFerry 11 (and later the Our Lady of Banneux)
Masbate I became Our Lady of Manaoag (in 1998)
Misamis Occidental became Our Lady of Montserrat (in 1997)

VESSELS TRANSFERRED TO CEBU FERRIES CORP.
Our Lady of Lipa (later transferred to WG&A)
Our Lady of the Rule
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dona Cristina
Dona Lili
Don Calvino
Misamis Occidental
Our Lady of Good Voyage (later)
Maynilad (later and also renamed Our Lady of Akita 2)
Our Lady of Banneux (later)
Our Lady of Manaoag (later)

Like all mergers and acquisitions (M&A), the terms “synergy”, “rationalization” and “streamlining” was bandied about as if these terms are positive terms in business. But soon these words brought chills to the rank and file because the sum of the 3 words is actually only one — “chopping block”. This is the field of bean counters where shipping passion is simply thrown out of the window.

Immediately, the Aboitiz Jebsens system was adopted. That means relying on bigger, faster ROROs and short in-port hours which equates to high utilization of ships. That called for good ship engines, a field of expertise of the now-renamed WG&A Jebsens. That system, however, also meant the death knell for the cruiser liners as their cargo booms meant long in-port hours and their having no car decks means low capacity for container vans.

The new style was to put all cargo in container vans and all container vans are mounted in trailers. For fast handling, tractor heads from trucks were no longer good enough. Only dedicated, automatic prime movers with the capability to raise the trailers were used. Calls on in-between ports generally were only 2-3 hours and ships don’t stay overnight at the farthest port of call of a voyage.

With so many ROROs sailing high hours per week (with some ships sailing 145.5 hours out of a 168-hour week), WG&A was confident it could sell less-efficient and slower ropax and container ships without affecting capacity and frequency. Soon some of the vessels were already for sale.

VESSELS SOLD SOON AFTER THE MERGER
Tacloban City (cruiser)
Iligan City (cruiser)
Dona Cristina (slow, small RORO)
Don Calvino (slow, small, unreliable RORO)
Dona Lili (slow, small RORO)
Wilcon 6 (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Concarrier V (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (big, modern container ship)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (big, modern container ship)
RoCon I (big, modern container ship, the biggest in the country)

VESSELS OFFERED FOR SALE BUT NOT SOLD THEN
Dona Virginia (cruiser liner)
Maynilad (big but slow RORO liner)
Zamboanga City (ROLO liner)
Our Lady of Naju (cruiser)
Masbate I (slow, small RORO)
Our Lady of Montserrat (cruiser)
SuperRORO 300 (former Our Lady of Hope, container ship)

With WG&A Jebsens managing the fleet, the merger upgraded the amenities, cleanliness and passenger service of the ferries. But initially all meals were for sale; vehement protests from patrons thereafter forced WG&A to backtrack. It was also claimed that safety standards improved as the whole fleet is now internationally-certificated. However this was not reflected in lower hull-loss rates. Ironically, it was the lesser Our Ladies (and not the SuperFerries) which proved to be unsinkable.

WG&A and CFC practiced branding. Branding is good in the sense that it promises consistent quality and service. On the other hand branding also utilizes ads and promotions. If that results in better market share then it should be good. Otherwise it only means higher level of costs. And higher costs are a threat to marginal routes and to less-efficient ships.

Initially, even with a fifth of their fleet sold (and with only one additional ship coming, the SF12 and while losing the SF7 to fire), WG&A was able to offer more frequencies because of the higher utilization of ships. But almost no new ports of call were added except for Bacolod. And probably the only significant new routes were the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao (which passes through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao), Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit, Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga-General Santos/Davao routes.

It was Cebu Ferries that added more new ports of call and routes (like Cebu to Dumaguit, Roxas City, Bacolod, Dumaguete, Larena, Jagna and Camiguin and Cagayan de Oro to Dumaguete) which in turn put a lot of pressure on the other Cebu shipping companies. CFC ships were faster than the competition and as former liners they simply outclassed the rest in terms of amenities and service.

Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation responded by adding ships. Sulpicio Lines basically kept to their old routes (except for the new Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas route) but Negros Navigation which previously concentrated only in Western Visayas has to venture in a lot of new routes and ports of call because their fleet more than doubled in a span of a few years. But then by sailing to Cebu, Nenaco also opened their former exclusive port of Bacolod to competition and they lost more than they gained.

This period right after the merger, the late 90s, was probably one of the best in Philippine passenger shipping. Competition was fierce, choices were many and there were a lot of newly-fielded ships. There were more shipping companies in the past but the ships of the 90s were far better than the ships of the earlier periods. In major ports there were nearly daily departures from all the liner companies combined.

But they say good times never really last. But I didn’t expect that the decline will be that soon, that fast, that continuous and what will be left is just the rump of the biggest-ever shipping company in the Philippines.

The first hint of trouble that I detected was when I noticed that WG&A was not properly assessing the threat, challenge and development of the intermodal system in Eastern Visayas which was then growing by leaps and bounds.

If Fidel V. Ramos had a deregulation program in shipping he also had a deregulation program in the bus and truck sectors. As deregulated area, bus companies can now ply Eastern Visayas routes with just a temporary operator’s permit. Soon a lot of buses were plying the Samar-Leyte-Biliran routes. Then the dominant short-distance RORO company in the Matnog-Allen route lost the case to protect their missionary status and new players entered that route ensuring that the ROROs needed will always be there. Long-distance trucking also developed with the loosening of the restrictions in the importation of surplus trucks. And with the advent of radial truck tires long-distance trucking became easy.

WG&A’s response was to withdraw from the Samar-Leyte routes except for the adjacent ports of Ormoc, Palompon and Isabel which actually comprises just one route. But soon under pressure from the buses these were lost too including the port of Masbate City which was also part of this route. Soon the islands of Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Biliran were lost to the intermodal trucks and buses.

Eastern Visayas was a signal victory for the intermodal system which was based on long-distance truck/bus plus the short-distance RORO ship. Wins by the challengers tend to have a multiplier effect. They become stronger, bolder and more confident. If the ship can be beaten in one area then nobody can pooh-pooh anymore that they will not be beaten in the next area of confrontation. And the next challenge probably happened before the WG&A has fully internalized their loss and it happened when they were in relative disarray.

A related development at this time was that WG&A’s new routes failed to stick and only the Bacolod route was able to survive. The new CFC routes also failed to pan out and were being abandoned one by one. One contributory factor for CFC’s retreat is fuel cost. The amenities and service of their ships might have been higher as those were former liners but as former liners it is also the reason why their engines are bigger and consume more fuel. Soon WG&A/CFC were selling ships. This was the second set of disposals and it happened at about the turn of the millennium. Also disposed in this period were at least six catamarans including vessels that came from mergers in the High Speed Craft (HSC) sector (the mergers with the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and Waterjet).

At the same proximate time, it was already the strategy of WG&A to sell old and inefficient cargo ships and just let the ROROs liners carry the container vans. They then went for bigger ROROs later with twin cargo decks, the reason for the purchases of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18.

The next challenge did not come from the intermodal. Rather it was the withdrawal of the Gothong family from the merger except for one scion. Soon the Gothong family re-entered the shipping business and re-established Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (but they were not particular successful). Not long after this development the Chiongbian family (of William Lines) also withdrew from the merged company. But they did not re-enter the shipping business. Let it be noted, because it is important, that all the merged shipping companies independently retained their cargo forwarding businesess. For the Chiongbian family it was the Fast Cargo Transport Corp.(FCTC) and Gothong Cargo Forwarding Corp.(GCFC) for the Gothong family.

One can speculate that the sale of 10 vessels in 2000-02 (including those withdrawn from routes and old container ships) might somehow be connected to these withdrawals. When the company also took out a big loan in this period ($18.6 million) it might also have a relation to this state of affairs. Before the end of 2002, Aboitiz had already bought out its former partners. But it will still be later that the company will be renamed Aboitiz Transport System (ATS).

The next challenge came from the intermodal again. In 2003, the Western Nautical Highway opened and buses, trucks and jeeps were able to roll down to Panay island via Mindoro and Batangas. Soon the shipping routes and shipping companies serving Panay were under great pressure. Again, WG&A chose to withdraw (from Dumaguit and Roxas) and just tried to hold on to Iloilo port.

The opening of the Western Nautical Highway and the consequent withdrawal from routes, the withdrawal of the Chiongbian family and the need for new ROROs provoked a massacre of ships in this period as about 15 ships were disposed in the years 2003-06, both from WG&A and CFC, both ROPAX and container ships. It must also be noted that six catamarans were also sold in this period. WG&A was lucky that at this time world metal prices were peaking. If it hastened the disposal of ships I can say it is probable. Let me state that in the late 1990’s when all three families were still in WG&A, the company did not sell to the breakers, in general. In the first half of the first decade of the new millennium WG&A sold heavily to the breakers especially when world metal prices were peaking.

Attracted by the doubling of world metal price in 2007, WG&A then sold their prized ferries Superferry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 to foreign liner companies.In the process they earned a windfall. But this is not without cost as they suddenly lacked the ships needed to carry the container vans. As a stopgap measure WG&A chartered 3 container ships, the “Myriad”, “Markella” and “Eponyma”. They then also converted SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 into twin-cargo-deck ROPAX ships. Later the subsidiary cargo company 2GO was formed and the chartered ships were returned one by one.

At about the same time, in 2007, a very ominous development took place. Aboitiz partnered with MCC Transport of Singapore, the Asia subsidiary of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group, the biggest container shipping company in the world and formed the MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP). Since it met nationality rules, it was able to ply local routes and the ships invested by Maersk were given special permits by MARINA.

If the chartered ships of ATS and the ships of 2GO were a step up over local competition, the ships that came from MCC Transport were still another further step ahead in terms of size, speed and efficiency. MCCTP acted as feeder to MCC Transport which now dominates the Asia container routes. Together with the coming of more regional container ships (after APL) with direct foreign routes (like MELL, PIL, RCL and others), this completely undermined one important bread and butter of local container shipping which is the transshipment of foreign container vans. ATS and subsidiary 2GO cargo operations might have been affected by this but as a group Aboitiz is safe because they are also on the side of the winners through MCCTP.

After the sales of the four of the biggest and most modern SuperFerry ships in 2007, the fleet of ATS/CFC no longer grew. New ships have come like SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Cebu Ferry 1, Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. But ships have also been sold, lost or laid-up like SuperFerry 9, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Good Voyage, Our Lady of the Rule, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and SuperFerry 19.

With only six ships sailing, ATS ports of call were already down to half compared to its peak and in half of these ports the frequencies were down to once a week. CFC ports of call were also down to half and its fleet is less than a third of what it had before. CFC changed its website and no longer claimed it was the biggest Visayan shipping company (which is just a reflection of the truth). The Sulpicio Lines fleet was already bigger than the combined ATS and CFC fleets. If cargo ships are counted, Sulpicio’s fleet was almost double the combined ATS, CFC and 2GO fleets.

In 2008, KGLI-NM, the holding company owning Negros Navigation made an offer for Aboitiz Transport System. When the bank financing the take-over bid asked for more collateral the bid collapsed. This take-over bid was news for a long time because of the significance and it dragged. It was here that ATS propagated the canard that shipping is losing to the budget airlines and it obscured the fact that cargo is the lifeblood of shipping. Ironically it is this same year that regional container ships in Philippine ports multiplied. And not once did I notice Aboitiz discussing its shares in MCC Transport Philippines. But at least the Aboitiz group was frank enough to admit that the business of power generation attracts them more and that they are already heavily investing in it and if ATS is sold it will be one of their primary investment areas.

In 2010, with the assistance of the ASEAN-China Fund, Negros Navigation Company was finally able to secure the deal to buy Aboitiz Transport System and its subsidiaries especially Cebu Ferries Corporation, SuperCat and 2GO, the forwarding company. At its end as an Aboitiz company, ATS, CFC and 2GO had only 9 ROPAX ships and 2 cargo ships sailing which is not any bigger in gross tons than the company it merged in WG&A even if the SuperCats are counted. So in effect that means the bigger William Lines and Gothong sank without any replacement.

Aboitiz always says around that it has already gotten out of shipping and the maritime industry. But they completely obscure the fact that they are still in MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP) and they completely own now the former Aboitiz Jebsens (renamed back when the Gothong and Chiongbian families withdrew from WG&A). The former Abojeb is in crewing and manning and that is one of the five recognized sectors of the Philippine maritime industry as defined by the government. MCCTP is already in expansion after Aboitiz sold Aboitiz Transport System. [Recently, Aboitiz clarified that some of their family members are engaged in MCCTP.]

Now, Negros Navigation Company owns Aboitiz Transport System and NENACO even retained the name and the brands. It will be a matter of time before it will be evident how big a bag they are holding.

The “great” merger of 1996 started out with a bang, lofty words and promises. It exited with just a whimper. But along the way it sank two great liner companies (William Lines and Gothong) and took down with it the liner industry.

The Diamond Ferries in the Philippines

When the Diamond Ferry Company ordered in 1990 and 1991 their second set of sister ships identical to their first set they ordered earlier, little did they know that the boom times of Japan fueled by the Japan property bubble would soon turn into bust that will bring about years of economic stagnation in their country. Such was the scenario when the Blue Diamond and the Star Diamond came into the Diamond Ferry Company. With the company not being one of the biggest and strongest in Japan, it had more trouble riding out the bad years and so the sister ships had difficulty keeping themselves afloat and it even gave to periods of being laid up.

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The Blue Diamond (Image from http://www.kipio.net)

In 2007, the Diamond Ferry Company and the Blue Highway Line merged to better wear out the storm. This was but natural as they were both majority-controlled already by the stronger shipping company MOL (Mitsui OSK Lines). However, even with the merger the fate of the sister ships did not go any better – they were simply offered for sale from a laid-up condition and for months they were in ship-for-sale sites. In 2007, the Star Diamond was snapped up by China buyers to become the Jiadong Pearl. She was supposedly the stronger ship of the two in the engine department.

That was a puzzling period for me because many shipping investors then were thinking the cruise ship and liner market will go up (and most were disappointed later on). This was about the same time that four liners of Aboitiz Transport Corporation (ATS) were also snapped up by foreign buyers. Quite puzzling for me because the liner prices then were very high as the world metal price suddenly doubled because of the China demand. ATS earned a tidy profit with their opportunistic sale and woe to the shipping companies who bought their liners as none sailed successfully and most were soon for sale after the expenses of refitting and refurbishing (like foreign operators don’t have our Economy class).

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The Star Diamond (Image from advectionfog.net)

The Blue Diamond languished for a while but in 2008 she was acquired by a Korean tour operator and she became the Queen Mary. After about two years, she was again laid up and put up for sale. That time the world metal prices went down to more-or-less normal and ATS was actually among who those who took a look on this ship. They did not purchase this, however, because of a tip that the engines were no longer strong. The ship was, however, was purchased by Negros Navigation Company which lost out in the bidding for the two sister ships of Kansai Kisen K.K. which turned out to be SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 here. The two SuperFerries were sister ships of Star Diamond and Blue Diamond.

So, in 2011, the Blue Diamond came to the Philippines to become the St. Michael The Archangel of Negros Navigation Company (after SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 were fielded by ATS). There were hoots initially as the St. Michael The Archangel can only do 17 knots initially while her ATS sister ships can do 20 knots comfortably. When to think they were all sister ships with exactly the same engines and external measurements. To the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), this proved that the rumors were true regarding the Blue Diamond‘s engines.

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St. Michael The Archangel by James Gabriel Verallo

The St. Michael The Archangel was sent back for some refitting and she was then able to do some 19 knots. She might have become the flagship of Negros Navigation although there were those who say that the smallest and slowest ship of the company, the San Paolo was actually the flagship of the company. The St. Michael The Archangel was only the fourth sailing ship of Negros Navigation in this period when their other sister ships, the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were not reliable enough (with work on their MAN engines, they became reliable later). It seems when a shipping company has problems, their ships also get sick.

Meanwhile, the Jiadong Pearl was released by her China owners in 2010 and she went to Korea as a tourist ship named the Gwangyang Beech. In 2013, she was sold to Negros Navigation and so the Diamond Ferry sister ships were reunited. The ship was named as St. Francis Xavier in the Negros Navigation fleet (but the naming caused confusion to some because previously the company had a liner named the St. Francis of Assisi). Like SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, the St. Francis Xavier has no problem doing 20 knots and she is very reliable too.

When Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) acquired Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to form 2GO, the four sisters all came under one roof. It was St. Michael The Archangel which has a small difference since she had a restaurant-lounge built in the rear sundeck which actually made her better-looking plus it is an appreciated additional passenger facility. St. Francis Xavier, meanwhile, has a small equivalent at the stern. This ship has also a side ramp that is not present in her sister ships. Though sister ships but having different owners before, the four have some minor structural differences if viewed from the outside.

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St. Francis Xavier by Daryl Yting

On the inside, the four has also had similarities in the design and arrangement. But it seems the pair of NENACO have the better and more developed interiors as the former Kansai Kisen ships look too workmanlike and even bland by liner standards. With such better development, the passenger capacities of the NENACO sisters ships are much higher than the former ATS sister ships. The St. Michael The Archangel has a passenger capacity of 1,929 while St. Francis Xavier has a passenger capacity of 1,910. The original passenger capacities of the former ATS ships were only 859 when their length, breadth and superstructure were practically the same as the other two and all retained the dual cargo decks.

The former Diamond Ferries were built by Shin Kurushima Dockyard Company in their Onishi yard in Japan (the sister ships from ATS were built by Kanasashi Company Ltd. Toyohashi Works in Toyohashi, Japan). The St. Michael The Achangel was built in 1990 with the ID IMO 9000455 while St. Francis Xavier was built in 1991 with the ID IMO 8847595. Both had external dimensions of 150.9 meters by 25.0 meters by 13.3 meters. The St. Michael The Archangel has the greater gross tonnage at 17,781 (maybe because of the added restaurant-lounge) while St. Francis Xavier has 15,971. The net tonnages vary too. The St. Michael The Archangel has 5,334 in net tonnage while the St. Francis Xavier has 4,808 in net tonnage. In rated horsepower there is a variance, too. St. Michael The Archangel has 25,200hp like her sisters from ATS while the St. Francis Xavier has only 24,700hp. However, the four are all powered by twin Hitachi-Sulzer engines.

The sisters have the modern bulbous stem and both have transom sterns. Both have two passenger decks and two cargo decks and a dominating single center funnel. 

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St. Michael The Archangel by Mike Baylon

As 2GO ships, the sister ships have no permanent route assignments as in they rotate routes with the other ships of the fleet. However, what separates now the St. Michael The Archangel is her lack of speed compared to her sister ships. Once when I was aboard the Princess of the South going to Manila. I was surprised with how easily we overtook her nearing the Verde Island Passage and our ship was only doing 17 knots. Turns out that before her drydock, she was only running at 14 knots. I heard that lately and from AIS observations that she seldom runs over 17 or 18 knots now which is about two knots below her sisters. It seems the report on weakness the engines was really true. And to think she might have been the primary beneficiary of the parts taken from St. Gregory The Great (the former SuperFerry 20) which was holed by an excursion to the reefs of Guimaras.

There are no reports yet of this kind in St. Francis Xavier. She is as fast and as reliable as the St. Leo The Great (the former SuperFerry 21).The company is proud of her as well as the Ilonggos.

The two former Diamond Ferries look like to be workhorses of 2GO in the years to come. They have finally found a home.

The MARINA “Magic Meter”

The MARINA “Magic Meter” is not something that can be found in a dictionary or a reference book. This is just a term by some ship spotters to describe the syndromes where:

  1. Ships from Japan will be modified and structures or scantlings are added and yet the Gross Tonnage (GT) which is a measure of the volume of the ship will stay the same/unchanged or like Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” the GT will even go down! Or less worse, the GT will remain the same. And much less worse, the GT will marginally increase.

  2. Another variation is some of the ships (passenger and cargo) will have unmodified superstructures and yet again the GT will go down too.

  3. Still another variation is the length and/or the breadth of the ship will go down and along with it the GT (and Net Tonnage) of the ship will go down. This is the Philippine version of “shrinking” a ship without it being brought to a kiln drier.

The MARINA “Magic Meter” is of course not available for free. Like many “accommodations” in government, some kind of “transaction” has to take place. Otherwise, it would not happen. For a company to benefit, of course, the regulating agency personnel has to benefit too. With less GT, benefits can accrue like less docking cost, less towing cost (use of tugs), less insurance cost maybe and some other cost-saving benefits. Ask any nautical designer and they will tell you that.

Some companies are very good in the employment of this “tool”. Some else are not that very fond of this. However, one deleterious effect of these shavings is we have so few entries in the first edition of the book, “The Great Passenger Ships of the World” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose which was published in 2010 in Germany. Since they relied on the official GT, and the cut-off is 10,000gt, many of our otherwise-qualified ships were not included. Actually, no ship of Negros Navigation Company was included in that while Aboitiz Shipping Corp., Sulpicio Lines and even Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. have liners included in that book. The Philippine Ships Spotters Society (PSSS) knows because it was the contributor of the Philippine ship photos in that book and in fact because of that contribution PSSS has a complimentary copy of that book.

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I have been asked before which among the liner companies was the most notorious for shrinking the GT. I have been coy before but the actual answer is Negros Navigation Company. Well, figures don’t lie and I am just stating the truth. Their St. Peter The Apostle, St. Joseph The Worker, San Paolo, Mary The Queen, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ezekiel Moreno, San Lorenzo Ruiz, Princess of Negros, Sta. Florentina and Sta. Maria all had lower GTs here compared to when they were in Japan. And we all know all of them had added structures. If we go by official figures, it would be the Sta. Ana that will be their biggest ship outside of St. Michael The Archangel because it is one of the very few ships of Negros Navigation which showed increased GT after modification here. And nobody in his right mind would claim Sta. Ana was the second-biggest ship ever of Negros Navigation Company.

If comparisons of liners’ GTs between different shipping companies are made the more this will be a stuff of laughing sessions. Like the sister ships SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 made it to the book of Frank Heine and Frank Lose but the sister ships St. Peter The Apostle and St. Joseph The Worker both did not because the NENACO ships are just a little over half the size of the two Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) liners, officially (guffaw!). And the smallest original Aboitiz liner, the SuperFerry 3 is significantly bigger than the Mary, Queen of Peace, also officially. Can anybody believe that? I can make other comparisons but NENACO might cringe and sue me (they shouldn’t, they are the biggest liner company now).

Maybe many will guess that the much-maligned Sulpicio Lines is also a big violator in GT shavings, too. Well, not that much really. Only the Philippine Princess, Surigao Princess and Cagayan Princess showed declines in GT while structures were added while Princess of the Pacific, Manila Princess and Boholana Princess GTs remained the same when the three all had additional structures. Meanwhile, the old Aboitiz Shipping Corporation played it straight – all the GTs of their modified ships rose, as should be. Later, as WG&A and ATS, all the GT of their acquired ships from abroad increased too when structures were added. That also goes true for their subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation.

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For William Lines, the GTs of Dona Virginia, Manila City, Ozamis City, Tacloban City and the first Zamboanga City all declined. For Sweet Lines, they played generally straight although the GT increases were minimal. If the GT declined, it was the work of the previous local owner before they acquired it. The old Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) was also good in the shaving game. Among their ships that showed GT declines while structures were added were the Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of the Rule, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ozamis Bay 1 and Butuan Bay 1.

Among the major Cebu regional shipping companies, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) also played it straight generally. If scantlings were added then the GTs rose, as it should. The others, well, it seemed on some of their ships they tried to make savings through shavings (pun intended) and that included the defunct Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas. Starlite Ferries and Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) were, however, generally honest.

One effect of these shavings is some ferries that should be over 1,000 gross tons have less than 1,000 gross tons officially. That means they are not in the list of Shippax International, a European database and publisher when they should be. In Bicol, however, there are ships which should be less than 1,000 gross tons that are over 1,000 gross tons. Before there was a rule that ferries over 1,000 gross tons can sail in Typhoon Signal Number 1. And so they bloated the GTs of their ships!

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This shaving of GT is not much of a phenomenon in the smaller ships including the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. If there was a shaving it generally happened this way – there were added structures but the GT simply did not move. And adding some structures are generally done in these ships to add some passenger space. That was the style of shaving there. Anyway, one problem maybe is there might not be people in MARINA who can compute GTs and NTs. They have more lawyers than marine engineers and what they know to compute are legal fees and dues on the ships and shipping companies. Yes, they studied fuzzy math in college.

In cargo ships, the shavings are less common. They usually don’t add structures unlike in the ferries and they just declare the Japan GTs (not in Aleson Shipping though whose local GTs of cargo/container ships are generally higher than its Japan GTs). However, some cargo ships add some extensions in the stern for the crew’s benefit. Usually this is not reflected in GT increase. Tankers and tugs follow the pattern of the cargo ships. These don’t add scantlings and decks and they just declare the Japan GT.

It is in the liner sector where shavings are the greatest. There are some liners that the true GTs are really so far off the actual GTs. However, most of that is rectified now since most of the liners came from Aboitiz Transport System. That shipping company was generally honest in GTs and the GTs were retained under 2GO.

Meanwhile, in recent years, LCTs are coming from China that have high GTs. The liners that came here that went to China first have high GTs too compared to their Japan GTs. Well, who knows if it is the correct one? Like I believe the assertion of a PSSS Moderator-mariner who said the 7,878gt of the 157-meter long, 4-deck SuperFerry 19 is too low.

When will be the time all our ships will have accurate and reliable GTs? The answer is I don’t know.

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The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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The Pioneering But Hard-Luck Cardinal Shipping

This article could be considered a tribute to Cardinal Shipping Corporation because among all shipping companies I consider them the true pioneers of island connections using short-distance ferry-ROROs (to distinguish it to the earlier LCTs). This is also an attempt to set the record straight because some government functionaries who have no knowledge in shipping repeat and repeat that the government-owned Maharlika ships first connected Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through short-distance ferry-ROROs when that is simply not true and factually incorrect. Personally, I hate historical revisionism in any form and that is actually what these dumb government functionaries are actually doing and then some clueless young members of media take after what they say. If this is not checked, we will see a kind of Goebbels syndrome in shipping.

As they say, research and documentation are the most important things in making claims or in debunking claims and the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was fortunate a co-founder, Gorio Belen, took time to research in the National Library and found the proofs needed to back up what we oldtimers knew that there were ferries that antedated the government-owned Maharlika ships and sometimes one good proof are newspaper advertisements and photos of their ship docked in Allen port. Well, maybe another good proof would come from some retired bus drivers that loaded their ships aboard Cardinal Ferry 1 and those were mainly Pantranco South bus drivers. I myself is a secondhand source because some of these drivers bought merchandise from us to be sold in Calbayog and Catarman. Of course, another good source will be the Allen and Matnog LGUs (local government units). They will know, definitely, especially some of their retired local politicians and local government employees. Add to that also some retired or still active porters.

Cardinal Shipping Corporation actually started in cargo shipping with the Cardinal V. This is a small cargo ship built in 1968 that was formerly the Ryusho Maru in Japan and that ship engaged in tramper shipping. In 1979, Cardinal Shipping branched out into RORO shipping when they brought out the Cardinal Ferry 1 to do a Matnog-Allen RORO route to the consternation of the wooden motor boats doing the route like the MB Samar and MB Sorsogon of Eugenia Tabinas (later of Bicolandia Shipping Lines). The ports they were using were not yet the modern Matnog Ferry Terminal but the old municipal port of Matnog and in Allen, they used the old BALWHARTECO wharf. Both are no longer existing. The two ports were just near the Matnog Ferry Terminal and the present port of BALWHARTECO.

Cardinal Ferry 1 was one of the many Tamataka Marus that came to the Philippines and one of the earliest. She was Tamataka Maru No. 21 and she was acquired from Shikoku Ferry of Japan. The other Tamataka Marus in the Philippines are the Reina Emperatriz (Tamataka Maru No. 71), Reina Genoveva (Tamataka Maru No. 75), Reina Hosanna (Tamataka Maru No.78), all of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. and Marina Ferries, Queen Helen of Arrel Traders (Tamataka Maru No. 31), Golden Arrow of Arrow Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 51), Viva Penafrancia of Viva Shipping Lines (Tamataka Maru No. 52) and the Dona Isabel of SKT Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 32).

Cardinal Ferry 1 was a RORO ship built by Sanuki Shipbuilding & Iron Works in Sanuki yard, Japan in 1964. She was just a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 39.2 meters by 9.1 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 355 tons. Cardinal Ferry 1 had a passenger capacity of 400 persons in sitting accommodations and she was powered by a single Niigata diesel engine that gave her a top speed of 10 knots when new. She possessed the ID IMO 7743118.

In 1980, Cardinal Shipping fielded the Cardinal Ferry 2 to sail the Surigao-Liloan-Maasin route. There was no Lipata Ferry Terminal then yet and they used what is known now as the Verano port now in Surigao City. In Liloan, they used the Liloan municipal port as there was no Liloan Ferry Terminal yet. Liloan, Surigao and Maasin were better ports than Allen and Matnog infra-wise as both hosted overnight ships to Cebu. With the fielding of Cardinal Ferry 2, for the first time ever Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected and a vehicle can roll from any part of Luzon to Mindanao and vice-versa. This was the fulfillment of the dreams of many including the late President Diosdado Macapagal in whose administration the JICA-backed Pan-Philippine Highway project (later renamed as Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway because Japan will partly fund the mega-project and war reparations to be paid by Japan will be used in it) first took shape. During Martial Law, this morphed into the Maharlika Highway. However, the government’s version of connection happened only in 1984 with the coming of Maharlika II and that was 4 years after Cardinal Shipping did it.

Cardinal Ferry 2 was the former Shikishima Maru No. 1 in Japan and she was built by Imabari Shipbuilding Company Ltd. in Imabari shipyard, Japan in 1960 (therefore she was older than Cardinal Ferry I) and she possessed the ID IMO 5322867. She was bigger than Cardinal Ferry 1 at 50.1 meters length by 7.8 meters breadth by 3.9 meters depth. The ship has 491 tons in Gross Register Tonnage (GRT), 302 tons in Net Register Tonnage (NRT) and 800 tons in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). This ferry was powered by a single Makita engine of 640 horsepower and the top speed was 9.5 knots.

The next year, in 1981, Cardinal Shipping laid out the Cardinal Ferry III which was the former Sanyomarugame Maru No.1 of Sanyo Kisen in Japan. She was fielded in the pioneering RORO route of San Jose de Buenavista, Antique to Puerto Princesa, Palawan! [I really wonder until now what sense this made. Maybe a Cebu-Bohol or a Cebu-Leyte connection would have more sense.] This ferry was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure yard, Japan in 1965. Her dimensions are 44.5 meters length by 10.0 meters breadth by 2.9 meters depth. Her original Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 495 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 190 tons. The passenger capacity was 350 and she had twin Niigata engines of a total 1,700 horsepower. The ship’s top speed was 13.5 knots which is fast for a small RORO then. The ship’s ID is IMO 6607848.

In the same year of 1981, Cardinal Shipping acquired the former Taysan of Seaways Shipping Corporation which was an old cargo ship built way back in 1956 by Sanoyas Shipbuilding Corporation in Osaka yard, Japan. This became the Cardinal VI in the Cardinal Shipping fleet and like the Cardinal V she engaged in tramper shipping.

The last ferry and ship acquisition of Cardinal Shipping was the Cardinal Ferry Seven in 1982. She was the former Azuki Maru in Japan of Kansai Kyuko. This RORO ship was built in 1964 by Hashihama Zosen in Hashihama yard, Japan. She measured 41.7 meters length by 12.6 meters breadth by 3.6 meters depth. The original Gross Register Tonnage was 473 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 165 tons . Her passenger capacity was 650 persons (that is a little big!). The ship was powered by two Daihatsu engines of 1,100 horsepower and the top speed was 12.5 knots. The ship’s ID was IMO 6502191.

Although pioneering, Cardinal Shipping was not successful for long. Even before the  Maharlika I arrived in Matnog-San Isidro route in 1982 and the Maharlika II in Lipata-Liloan route in 1984, she was already under pressure. There were already other competitors that came in the two routes especially in Matnog-Allen route like the Northern Star and Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping (before this Newport Shipping has already been sailing a route from Manila to Samar). Eugenia Tabinas also got into ROROs when she was able to acquire the Eugenia from Esteban Lul of the Visayas. Later, she was able to acquire the Northern Star from Newport Shipping which became the Northern Samar after conversion in Cebu.

It was really hard to compete against the new Maharlika ships which did not need to show a profit as it was government-owned (that is how government always worked and the usual hackneyed reasoning is it is “public service”. However, there was no denying that the Maharlika ships were better as it was much newer. Cardinal Shipping also had ships that were not only old but built in the 1960’s when engines were still not that long-lasting as microfinishing was not yet in great use and metallurgical research was not yet that advanced. Their route to Palawan also did not make sense in that period. In San Bernardino Strait, they soon had a dogfight in their hands with many entrants. Not long after, the ships of Cardinal Shipping began losing to competition.

Cardinal Shipping did not completely go away however and it had a rebirth in the form of Cardinal Philippine Carrier which was based in Iloilo City. They were able to retain the former Cardinal Ferry 3 which was now known as Palawan Traders. Before this she was known as the Kanlaon Ferry, a name maybe given so she will stick in her revised route. They then added a pioneering ferry, a catamaran High Speed Craft, the Bacolod Express in 1989 to do the Bacolod-Iloilo route. This was very notable because before her only Manila had High Speed Crafts in the early 1970s. Some of those were even hydrofoils and they were used in a route to Corregidor which was being heavily promoted then as a tourist destination. 

The Bacolod Express was the former Quicksilver I and she was built by NQEA Australia in Cairns, Australia in 1986. She arrived in the country in 1989 and she was formerly known as the Princess of Boracay and in 1990, she became the Bacolod Express. This aluminum-hulled catamaran measured 29.0 meters length by 11.0 meters breadth by 3.2 meters depth and with a gross tonnage of 318 and a net tonnage of 105. She had a passenger capacity of 356 and she was powered by two MWM engines of 2,700 horsepower which gave the High Speed Craft a top speed of 27 knots. This ferry was one beautiful catamaran.

Bacolod Express was successful in her route for a few years. The first sign of trouble came when BREDCO, the incomplete reclamation area then but her port in Bacolod suddenly began refusing her docking. She cannot dock in Banago port because that was controlled then by Negros Navigation Company, a competitor of theirs which operated conventional ferries between Iloilo and Bacolod, the Don Vicente and the Princess of Panay. Definitely, Bacolod Express was taking traffic away from NENACO which had no equivalent at the start to Bacolod Express (they later fielded the St. Michael). Everybody knows NENACO’s board were powers magnificent then in Western Visayas and could make things happen (or not happen).

Not long after, Bacolod Express also began experiencing engine troubles (in less than 10 years of operational life?) thus unreliability plagued her. That was deadly when new competitors came into her route. With Bacolod Express no longer able to carry the flag, Cardinal Philippine Carrier soon quit the business. They sold the Palawan Traders to E.B. Aznar Shipping where she became the Melrivic Seven. Today this ship still sails the Tanon Strait crossing between Escalante and Tabuelan where she once sailed before. She is the only remnant left and living reminder that once there was Cardinal Shipping but many people do not know that. Maybe not even her crew.

That was the sad tale of Cardinal Shipping which was pioneering in very many ways but which lost in the end. I doubt if many still remember them.

cardinal-shipping

Photo Credits: Gorio Belen, Times Journal and Philippine Daily Express

The MV St. Leo The Great

The MV St. Leo The Great of

  • The MV St. Leo The Great of 2GO Travel shipping company was the MV SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) when she arrived in the Philippines in 2010. She was renamed when she passed on to 2GO Travel in 2012 when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) and cohorts acquired Aboitiz Transport System. MV SuperFerry 21 arrived here just after MV SuperFerry 20 which was a sister ship. Both came from Kansai Kisen Kaisha, a big, respected and old Japan shipping company. Over a higher bid of a South Korean concern, the two were awarded to ATS because they respected this company’s care and ability to properly maintain their ships. The two sister ships were purchased for a reported $8 million only.

The MV St. Leo The Great was known as the MV Sun Flower Nishiki in Japan. She was built by Kanasashi Shipbuiding (Kanasashi Heavy Industries) in Toyohashi shipyard in 1992 (now Toyohashi Shipbuilding Company). Her keel was laid on May 13, 1992. She was launched in September 6, 1992 and completed in December 15, 1992. As built, she measured 150.9 meters in length over-all (LOA), with a breadth of 25.0 meters. The over-all volume of the ship expressed in gross tonnage (GT) is 9,611. Her carrying capacity expressed in deadweight tons (DWT) is 3,520 tons. She is powered by two Hitachi-Sulzer marine diesel engines (Sulzer engines built under license by Hitachi) developing 25,200 horsepower and her top speed was 22 knots.

The ship was issued the permanent ID IMO 9042764. Her other identification for AIS (Automatic Identification System) purposes is MMSI 548398100. She has a single mast, a single funnel, two passenger decks, a bulbous stem and a transom stern. Equipped with visor ramp at the bow and two quarter-stern ramps and two car decks she is hence a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship of about 180 TEU capacity. As built, her passenger accommodations in two decks are all-airconditioned. On the bridge deck are the accommodations for the crew, the radio room and airconditioning equipment.

When she came to the Philippines, she was first brought to the Keppel Batangas shipyard for refitting and modification. Since she came in the era when passenger patronage of liners was already ebbing there was not an attempt to increase her passenger capacity by much. Hence, her superstructure was no longer changed but cabins and bunks were erected to make her a multi-day liner. The cafeteria stayed pretty much the same along with the staircase. Although this ship has plenty of viewing deck space in the top deck, inside there was really not much room and amenities when compared to our great liners in the past. Having only two decks for the passengers contributes pretty much to that (the great liners of the past had up to four passenger decks). Her passenger capacity as modified here is only 859 persons which is just about a third of the great Philippine liners of the previous decades.

Here, amazingly, her gross tonnage climbed to 19,468 but her net tonnage (NT) is only 5,840 and that is a violation of the IMO rule that the NT should be automatically 1/3 of the GT, at least. With such GT, she rightfully belonged to the book “The Great Passenger Ships of the World” by Raoul Fiebig, Frank Heine and Frank Lose released just this year (2016). She is one of the few Philippine liners in that book, the photo of which was contributed by Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS). Her DWT, meanwhile, remained the same. However, her rated speed now is down to 20 knots which is still fast by local standards. She is a very reliable ship. And she still has all-airconditioned accommodations.

Boarding the ship, one first comes across the upper wagon deck and a stair leads to the lower passenger deck. Here, a grand staircase connects the two passenger decks and opposite that is the front desk, the office of the Hotel Manager and a convenience store. In the lower passenger deck the restaurant cum cafeteria dominates. Aside from meals included in the ticket, the passengers have an option to have separate meals and they can order extra. The restaurant is open almost 24 hours and various kinds of foods and refreshments can be ordered. The restaurant also serves as the lounge of the ship.

Since the ship is all-airconditioned, the lowest class in the ship is the MegaValue which corresponds to airconditioned Economy. These are mostly concentrated in the middle portion behind the restaurant and in some parts of the sides and rear of the lower passenger deck. There is of course the usual Tourist class and this is mainly located at the sides of the first passenger deck with some in the upper passenger deck. The higher classes of this ship are located in the upper passenger deck. These consists of Cabin for 4, State Room for 2 and Suite Room for 2. Suite is the highest class but State Room is not far behind in comfort and size. In those two accommodations one has to pay for the entire room.

At the bridge level is the viewing deck for all the passengers. The forward half of that is off limits to the passengers and that is the reason why one can’t have a peek of the bridge. They also shoo all passengers from that area when the night gets deep. Lacking facilities for sitting, it is hard to stay long there or when the sun is already hot. Because of that, I still prefer the traditional viewing deck at the side of the ship but that is not available in MV St. Leo The Great. In St. Leo The Great, it is easy to get bored if one is not a sleeper because there is not much area for passengers to roam and amenities are lacking compared to the great liners of the past decades.

Originally, as MV SuperFerry 21 she was assigned the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos-Davao route together with the MV SuperFerry 20. However, in about a year Aboitiz Transport System abandoned their Southern Mindanao liner routes. She was then assigned the Nasipit route of the company via Tagbilaran. Even when she became the MV St. Leo The Great of 2GO Travel her often route is still Nasipit but the intermediate port changes. Right now, her intermediate port is Cebu and that will probably stay for a long time since 2GO realized there is not much passengers and cargo in Tagbilaran now.

Aside from MV SuperFerry 20/St. Gregory The Great which is now gone (she grounded taking a shortcut and is now broken up), she also has two sister ships in the 2GO fleet, the MV St. Michael The Archangel and the MV St. Francis Xavier (this should not be confused with the earlier MV St. Francis of Assisi of Negros Navigation). However, those two ships were not built by Kanasashi Shipbuilding but by Shin Kurushima Dockyard (yes, sister ships can be built by different shipbuilders in different yards).

Having come from the great Kansai Kisen Kaisha of Japan and Aboitiz Transport System, MV St. Leo The Great still has great engines and a strong hull. With sufficient care, this ship is capable of sailing for many more years, knock on wood.

The Short Career of the Beautiful Liner M/S St. Francis of Assisi

Image © tagatresse2011/Flickr

In the year 1994, the liner wars were already heating up in the Philippine inter-island routes. This was the effect of the liberalization and modernization efforts by the new administration of President Fidel V. Ramos (lest anyone misconstrue it, I would want to make an advance notice to all that I have mixed views of the results of this administration’s thrusts on shipping). In this year, Negros Navigation acquired a new liner to be their flagship, the beautiful and striking M/S St. Francis of Assisi. This might have been a nearly forced response because the previous year other major liners fielded in the local waters new flagships that were big, fast, great, well-equipped with smart and snappy crews to match them and good food as complement. Gone from the major routes were the so-called “cattle carriers” of the past.

The leading Sulpicio Lines acquired their grand MV Princess of the Orient with featured two high center funnels. Not to be outdone, their foremost competitor William Lines brought into the country the equally grand and venerable MV Mabuhay 1 to start their premier Mabuhay series of liners. On its part, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) fielded the unpretentious but big MV Our Lady of Akita in the same year 1993. Among the major liner companies, it was Aboitiz Shipping and Sweet Lines which did not try to match of these moves. Aboitiz Shipping Company bought only the small liner and not-fast SuperFerry 3 in the year 1993. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines did not purchase any as they were already in crisis. And before the year 1994 was over they already stopped operations and began selling their ships.

The M/S St. Francis of Assisi was a medium-sized liner compared to the flagships of the other majors. She does not lack the speed, however, and one thing she had were beautiful and well-proportioned lines plus a striking funnel to complement it. In Japan, she was originally known as the MV Queen Coral No. 2 of Terukuni Yusen KK, an old Japan shipping line. Later, she was sold to Kansai Kisen KK where she was known as the MV Queen Flower No. 2. The ship was built by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in their Nagasaki shipyard in 1975. She had a steel hull, a single mast, a center funnel, a bulbous stem and a cruiser stern. She was equipped with a ramp at the quarter-stern and car decks and so making her a RORO (Roll-on, Roll Off Ship). As a cruiser in Japan, she was already equipped there with three passenger decks.


Queen Coral 2 © Wakanatsu via Britz Salih

The ship has a length over-all (LOA) of 140.1 meters with a breadth of 18.5 meters. With a long bow and thin breadth and those were the factors that make her look “sexy”. Originally, she had a gross tonnage (GT) of 6,801 and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 1,969 tons. She was equipped with two Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines developing 24,000 horsepower. This power, channeled to two screws gave her an original top speed of 24 knots making her a fast cruiser. She was given the permanent ID IMO 7401966.

In 1994, as said earlier, this ship came to Negros Navigation. With almost a full and flush deck, just a few alterations were made on her superstructure. She was, however, fitted with an open-air economy deck at the stern of the sun deck. This marred her lines a little but over-all, she was still a beautiful ship with gorgeous lines. The striking mast helped contribute to this impression. I was then in Mindoro in 1994 and 1995 and if free and if I am in Calapan I will wait for this beautiful liner to come up Verde Island Passage and pass. She then had a sailing from Manila to Iloilo every Monday, Thursday and Saturday. I was always wishing that someday I might be fortunate to sail with her.


M/S St. Francis of Assisi and her crew during drydock © Dead Slow Ahead/Flickr

Upon alteration and an added half deck, the Gross Tonnage (GT) of this ship went down to 5,873. It seems the MARINA “magic meter” was used on her along with the many ships of Negros Navigation. She had a declared 3,689 Net Tonnage (NT) with a DWT (Deadweight Tonnage) of 2,001 tons. Her passenger capacity increased to 1,800 persons. As a former cruiser, her container capacity was not high at 40+ TEUs but she can carry a lot of break-bulk cargo at the stern of the first passenger level which is also the bodega of the ship. At her introduction, the ship was still capable of 20-21 knots. However, on the Iloilo route she was only made to sail at 18 knots, sustained. She has the reputation as having one of the best interiors locally and especially in the Iloilo route and that was needed since the grand MV Mabuhay 1 of William Lines was also calling in that port.

In the next few years, Negros Navigation joined the race to acquire more and more ferries. The urge for this must have come from the merger of three major shipping lines that resulted in the formation of the shipping company William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) which had a lot of ships, routes and frequencies. With an increase in fleet size, Negros Navigation cannot just stay in its five staple routes which were Iloilo, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, Roxas City and Dumaguit. They have to expand and they did and in a big way. To help sustain this, Negros Navigation resorted to gimmicks and freebies like the dancing porters, free porterage and free shuttle buses.

One of the new destinations of Negros Navigation was the port of Puerto Princesa in Palawan with a schedule of once a week. She was the most beautiful liner there. Later, she was transferred to the Nasipit route in Agusan del Norte and she was also the most beautiful there. M/S St. Francis of Assisi was assigned to this route apart from her usual route of Iloilo. Sadly, on one of her voyages to Nasipit, MS St. Francis of Assisi was hit by shipboard fire and she burned while moored in the quay. That happened on January 26, 1999, less than five years after she was introduced in the Philippines. The fire was put out but she sustained significant damage. She was then towed to Cebu but she was deemed there to be beyond economic repair or BER. Subsequently, she was broken up there.

And that was the short career of the beautiful M/S St. Francis of Assisi in our waters.

WHEN EASTERN VISAYAS SHIPPING LOST TO THE INTERMODAL

Once upon a time it was liners that connected Eastern Visayas to the national capital. Liners from Manila took several routes. There was a route that after touching parts of the present Northern Samar the passenger-cargo ship will swing north to Bicol ports. There was also a route that will just go to ports on the north coast of Samar up to Laoang, which was the jumping-off point for towns on the northeast coast of Samar that were without roads. There was also a route that after docking in Calbayog and/or Catbalogan the ship will swing south to Tacloban or to Cebu. There was also a route that after calling in Tacloban the ship will swing south and pass the eastern seaboard of Leyte on the way to Surigao, Butuan or even Cagayan. And there was a route where the ship will head to several ports on the western seaboard of Leyte island and some will even proceed to Surigao. There was also a route where ships will dock on ports in the present Southern Leyte and the ship will proceed to Surigao and Butuan. There was even a route that will go first to Surigao and the ship will swing north to Cabalian in the present Southern Leyte.

Among the many ports where liners from Manila called then in Eastern Visayas were Borongan, Laoang, Carangian, Allen, Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc, Baybay, Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. Shipping companies from the majors to the minor lines were represented in the eastern Visayas routes and ports. Among them were Compania Maritima, Go Thong and the successors Gothong Shipping, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping, General Shipping, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Philippine President Lines and the latter Philippines Pioneer Lines, Galaxy Lines, Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping. Among the minor shipping companies North Camarines (and NCL and NORCAMCO), N&S Lines, Rodriguez Shipping, Newport Shipping, Eastern Shipping, Bisayan Land Transport and the latter BISTRANCO, Corominas Richards Navigation, Veloso Shipping, Royal Lines and Samar-Leyte Shipping had routes to Eastern Visayas. Amazingly, all those shipping companies are gone now if not the routes in the region and there are no more liners left sailing to Eastern Visayas.

©Gorio Belen

Shipping of goods and transport of people do not and will never go away. The liners are gone now from Eastern Visayas and what replaced them were the intermodal trucks and buses. Liner shipping simply lost decisively and completely to the intermodal transport and one result of this is the emergence of the so-called “ports to nowhere” or ports that have no ships or meaningful ship calls.

The start of this process of decline and loss started one day in 1979 when “Cardinal Ferry 1”, a RORO arrived to connect the ports of Matnog and Allen. Right after her arrival buses from Manila and Samar began rolling. First to be dominated by the intermodal trucks and buses were the ports in the new province of Northern Samar. In five years all the liners were gone there and it looked as if the foundering of the “Venus” of N&S Lines in Tayabas Bay on October 28, 1984 while trying to outrun a typhoon marked the beginning of the closing of the curtains. Soon Calbayog was also lost too to the intermodal.

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For a time the route touching on Catbalogan and Tacloban survived and the last hold-outs were Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, the two strongest shipping companies in the 1980’s. By this time all the minors were gone along with most of the major shipping companies. Many of them floundered in the great financial crisis of the 1980’s and never recovered. It was not just that crisis that torpedoed them. Shipping of copra, the prime cargo from the 1950s dramatically declined in the 1980’s soon after the near-death of the abaca trade in the 1970’s. Abaca was the primary cargo of shipping from the 1880’s up to the 1950’s and copra was the crop that succeeded it. No crop or produce replaced abaca and copra and as for Cavendish bananas and “Manila Super” mangoes those no longer passed through Manila and were brought by reefers and containers direct to Japan and East Asia. Corn trade also suffered a decline because of importation.

Meanwhile, fresh fish from Eastern Visayas no longer passed to the ships as it was transferred to the refrigerated trucks. With overfishing that that happened in the 1980’s even the dried fish industry of Eastern Visayas was almost killed. Coconut oil mills also sprouted in the region and for copra destined for the major oil mills of Southern Tagalog it was already the LCTs that were transporting copra aside from the intermodal trucks. Even charcoal passed on to the trucks and cargo jeeps.

The process of the decline of liner shipping in Eastern Visayas accelerated with the Ramos decree allowing the entry of surplus trucks in Subic. Soon the versatile and powerful wing van trucks were rolling down the highways and crossing thru the Matnog-Allen route and San Juanico bridge. There was no more imperative for CALABARZON factories to ship their products through the dangerous, graft-, extortion- and traffic-ridden North Harbor. They can simply call forwarders with wing van trucks and the trucks will roll immediately unlike in North Harbor where they have to wait for the ship schedule and be on the mercy of the arrastre and port thieves. By the time the cargo is loaded in North Harbor, usually the wing van truck was already finished delivering its load in Eastern Visayas. And the wing van truck was not only faster; it was also cheaper with less handling needed since it can bypass the bodega and go straight to the stores and supermarkets and there is no need for haulers and arrastre service in the destination pier.

Balicurato Port ©Jun Marquez

Liners also lost to the intermodal buses since passengers can just hail or stop the Manila bus right by their gates and in Manila there was no longer a need to fight through the crime-ridden North Harbor and battle the horrendous traffic. The bus was also faster and at the same time cheaper especially since Eastern Visayas was a deregulated area hence there are a lot of buses and fares are discounted almost year-round. And buses leave everyday at many hour slots while liners only sail on certain days. Especially for people of Northern Samar they won’t foolishly go to Calbayog because for the same money and time they will already be in Matnog and Matnog is only 12 hours away from Manila, half of the travel time of the Calbayog liner.

Around the year 2000 I realized that if Sulpicio and WG&A will not cooperate and form a consortium of fast, medium-sized liners then I knew in a short time that they will lose even Leyte island to the intermodal. The threat loomed large since there was a Ramos decree making it easier for bus operators to acquire new units. Entry for new players was also easy because of the deregulated nature of the region. I noticed also that wing van trucks were multiplying fast and that can be easily seen in Matnog port then. Motorcycle carriers were also a constant presence in the roads already along with refrigerated trucks whose cargo are not fish but processed meat and other perishable groceries.

Ormoc Port circa 1996 ©Jorg Behman

Instead, starting in 2000, WG&A were selling liners fast, and to the breakers and without replacement. Of course there was already the pressure on the company because of the declared intention of the Gothong and Chiongbian families to divest (and they must be paid somehow). With this move I knew the game was over. There will be no succor for liner shipping here because by this time Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping had already quit Eastern Visayas passenger shipping and even MBRS Lines who bravely tried Samar again has already retreated.

The odds were tough because the intermodal bus was simply superior in many ways. In southwestern and southern Leyte island even at dawn a passenger just have to leave his baggage by his gate, wait inside his house and the Manila bus will honk and stop. No need to wait long in a port and haggle with porters. And even from that part of Eastern Visayas the total travel time by bus was less and the fare cheaper. Arriving in Manila it is easier to get a connecting ride in Cubao or Pasay and the taxi fare will come out cheaper compared to North Harbor and of course there is the MRT too. Going home to the province there were a lot of attractive buses in Cubao and in Pasay or even in Manila that do not have the hassle of going to the North Harbor.

Then liner shipping in Eastern Visayas came crashing down fast when the “Princess of the Stars” went down in 2008 and passenger operations of Sulpicio Lines was suspended. With the fleet laid up Sulpicio Lines sold the “Tacloban Princess” and the “Palawan Princess” to the breakers and that marked the end of liner shipping for Sulpicio Lines in the region. Not long after that Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also quit Leyte too. Actually, the loss of Masbate to the intermodal transport practically doomed the ATS route because somehow the intermediate port of Masbate  contributed passengers and cargo to the route.

Laid-up Princesses. ©Mike Baylon

For a time there were no more liners in the regions and even container ships are very few. Recently, 2GO tried to revive a route that passes through Romblon, Masbate and Ormoc on the way to Cebu. Many doubt if that route and service will last because it is really very hard now for liners to beat the intermodal if the route distance is almost the same. There is simply a swarm of buses and trucks forming a formidable opposition to the liners and even to the container ships.

This is one region where the triumph of the intermodal was swift and complete. But this is not known in Japan which advises us (for what?) and which still thinks intermodal trucks are only good for 250 kilometers maximum and cannot imagine wing van truck can beat container shipping. Well, sometimes shipping Ph.Ds are funny.