The Ship Design Conflict Within WG & A

On the first day of the year 1996, the “Great Merger” officially happened. This brought the fleets and all assets of William Lines Inc. (WLI), Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (ASC) under one single company and management except for some very old ferries of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (the likes of Legazpi) and a some ferries and container ships of Aboitiz Jebsens (that was a separate company) which were the container ships acquired from the Ukraine. This was supposedly a preemptive move so local shipping can compete against the purported entry of foreign competition in the inter-island routes which proved to be a bogey or a false story later. How some old shipping families believed that foreigners can enter with a Anti-Cabotage Law in effect that forbids foreign shipping firms from sailing in local routes is beyond me because repeal of any law passes through Congress and our Congress is usually not keen on passing laws that grants free passage to foreigners and if those three liner and container shipping companies are willing, the regional shipping companies and other companies might not be willing and they can also raise a ruckus. But anyway the unlikely merger happened and a very big shipping company was formed from previously competitors.

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Dona Virginia (Credits to Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center and Manu Sarmiento)

Any merger usually results in excess assets and in shipping that includes ships aside from management personnel and employees and logistical assets like containers, container yards and buildings. This was easily obvious with the WG&A merger. Since there were excess liners some of it were sent to its regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) like when the Mabuhay 6 (the Our Lady of Good Voyage) and the Our Lady of Lipa were sent there. Meanwhile, all the cruisers liners were offered for sale. They also tried to dispose old and unreliable ROROs like the Dona Cristina, Don Calvino and the Dona Lili that were formerly regional ferries. Actually even some recent liners were also offered for sale. The total was about 10 and that was already about a third of the combined fleet. That also included a handful of container ships.

I knew it early there was a conflict with the disposal of ships when I had as a cabin mate in SuperFerry 7 the cargo manager of William Lines in North Harbor and he was furious because to him it seems that the liners of William Lines were being targeted. Well, that might have been the unintended result of getting Aboitiz Jebsens as fleet and maintenance manager because they will use their old standard in choosing ships (that company was subsequently renamed to WG&A Jebsens to reflect the changed circumstances).

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Don Calvino (Credits to George Tappan and Gorio Belen)

One has to look into recent history to understand this. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation as a liner company did not acquire any liners from 1974 to 1988 and the one they acquired in 1988 was inconsequential as it was just the small and old cruiser liner Katipunan of Escano Lines which became the Legaspi 1. By that time Aboitiz Shipping Corporation had just a few old liners sailing, a combination of former “FS” ships which were on its last legs and a few old cruisers including the pair acquired from Everett Steamship, the Legazpi and the Elcano which were also clearly obsolete already and getting unreliable. It looked to me that without their partner Jebsens Maritime that was influential in their container shipping (which was actually good), they might not have had their blockbuster SuperFerry series.

If one looks at the SuperFerry series of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, one will easily see its distinguishing characteristics. They are all ROROs (or more exactly ROPAXes) with car ramps at the bow and at the stern, the container vans are all mounted in trailers, trailer caddies hauled them in a fast manner and if possible the two car ramps are both employed so one is dedicated for loading and the other for unloading. Radios are also employed for communication to orchestrate the movement of the container vans so a trailer caddy hauling a container aboard will have a container being unloaded on the way down and markers are used so loading of container vans will not be helter-skelter which can mean difficulty in unloading a container van in an intermediate port.

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Maynilad by Britz Salih

To remedy their serious lack of liners due to non-purchase in the recent years past, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Aboitiz Jebsens designed their liners to have short interport hours as in 2 to 3 hours only, the former the preferred time. In Manila and in the endport, the port hours were also very short. With this kind of operation the SuperFerries had a high number of hours at sea on a weekly basis which meant maximum utilization. While a Sulpicio Lines liner will only have a round-trip voyage if the route is Southern Mindanao, an Aboitiz ship will still have a short trip to the likes of Panay within the same week or else do a twice a week Northern Mindanao voyage. With this style, their 4 SuperFerry ships were in practicality the equal of 5 or 6 ships of the competition. Of course with this kind of use of ships a heavy load of preventive maintenance is needed and that happened to be the forte of Aboitiz Jebsens.

When the Chiongbian and Gothong families agreed to the Aboitiz proposal to have Aboitiz Jebsens as fleet and maintenance manager they should have already known was in store and that is the liners should perform the Aboitiz Jebsens way and that meant those which can’t will fall into disfavor and might be the target for culling because with the Aboitiz Jebsens system a lesser number of liners will be needed to maintain their route system and frequencies. Of course at the start WG & A will try to employ all the liners that were not relegated to their subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation. But then new liners were still coming onstream, the liners William Lines, Gothong Lines and Aboitiz Shipping ordered when they were still separate companies. WG & A created new routes and frequencies but in a short time they realized what cannot be maintained because there are not enough passengers or cargo like the routes to Tacloban and Dipolog (Dapitan actually) and the Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao routes.

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Tacloban City (Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

With that “weak” and “inefficient” ships will be targets for culling aside from the old liners and there was no question that cruiser liners will be first in the firing line. That type cannot carry much cargo and their cargo handling in the interport is longer as cargo booms are not as fast in loading and unloading unlike trailer caddies. So it was no surprise that the cruiser liners Misamis OccidentalTacloban City and Iligan City, formerly of William Lines were almost immediately up for sale. The small ROPAX Zamboanga City was also offered for sale because her engines were big relative to her size and capacity (16,800-horsepower engines) and she had no ramps at the bow. That also went true for the slow Maynilad (14-15 knots only on 16,800 horsepower). The problem with these is they were all former William Lines ship, the reason why some former William Lines people were upset. But they accepted Aboitiz Jebsens as the fleet manager and so that will almost inevitably be the result.

Some lesser liners survived. The “Our Lady” ships of Gothong Lines survived because for their size and capacity their engines were small and that speaks of efficiency and though while a little slower they were fit for the short routes like the northern Panay routes (Dumaguit and Roxas City) or in the periphery like Masbate and Eastern Visayas. The northern Panay route also became the refuge of the Our Lady of Naju, a former Gothong ship which was also a cruiser. The passengers and cargo of the route were not big and so a big cruiser liner like the Dona Virginia will not fit. But of course all that favored the former Gothong ships. It might just have been a quirk of fate and not necessarily because the Gothong representative to the WG & A Board of Directors who is Bob Gothong is close to the Aboitizes. But then I wonder how the Our Lady of Lipa survived. For her size she has big engines and speed was not really needed in the Dumaguit/Roxas City route. Was it because they wanted to show up their competitor the old but beautiful cruiser liner Don Julio of Negros Navigation? I thought when the old cruiser liner Misamis Occidental was refurbished to become the cruiser ship Our Lady of Montserrat, a former William Lines vessel she might have fitted the route (she was even re-engined and became all-airconditioned like the Our Lady of Naju). Was her speed not really enough for the route? Or WG & A wants a ship that is really superior to the competition?

Our Lady of Banneux

Credits to Keppel Cebu and Ken Ledesma

It was not surprising then that in the early merger years that former William Lines officers and employees would think it was only their vessels which was on the firing line or chopping block.

The beautiful SuperFerry 11 which was fielded after the merger was also not that favored. Her engines are just about okay for her size, she has the speed but then like the Zamboanga City she has no car ramps at the bow because she also came from A” Lines of Japan. She was also destined for William Lines if the merger did not happen. The beautiful Maynilad would have easily been a SuperFerry in terms of size and accommodations if not for her grave lack of speed. Being excess later the SuperFerry 11 and Maynilad were passed to Cebu Ferries Corporation and they were the biggest ships that company ever had. That was after WG & A created an entirely new route for them, the Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route which in first report was good. But then along the years WG & A and successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) developed a reputation for being very soft in holding and maintaining routes. In Cebu Ferries the SuperFerry 11 was renamed to Our Lady of Banneux and the Maynilad was renamed to Our Lady of Akita 2 after her top passenger deck was removed. The two happened to be ex-William Lines ships also! Although not clearly disfavored (as she made the SuperFerry grade), the Our Lady of Banneux which can run at up to 19 knots had a grounding incident in Canigao Channel from which she never recovered again.

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The ship Zamboanga by Wilben Santos

So actually the William liners were the great casualties of the merger due to redundancy and incompatibility and that was because they were unlike the original SuperFerry liners and they simply cannot make the SuperFerry grade (well, just like the former “Our Lady” ships of Gothong Lines only one of those made the SuperFerry grade, the former Our Lady of Akita which became the SuperFerry 6). Of course their former Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 which made the SuperFerry grade lived longer. The former Mabuhay 2 was not lucky as she was hit by fire early which led to complete total loss. In the longer run only the Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 survived and the Mabuhay 3 as SuperFerry 8 was even leased to Papua New Guinea because of the surplus of liners in WG & A.

The liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) were more lucky as they found niche routes and small engines played into their favor. Moreover many of the former Gothong Lines ships were in regional routes and they lived long there including their former small liners the Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes which were sister ships. That even included the venerable Our Lady of the Rule and their old Our Lady of Guadalupe which has unreliable engines and I even wonder how she lasted so long. In the regional routes some former ships of William Lines survived like the Our Lady of Good Voyage and the Our Lady of Manaoag.

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Dona Lili (Credits to PNA, Phil. Daily Express and Gorio Belen)

When the Chiongbian family of William Lines divested in 2003 only 2 of their former liners remained in WG & A aside from a few container ships. They were paid off in cash from the passenger and container ships that were scrapped. There were still many Gothong ships in the fleet of WG & A when they divested as most survived the culling but they preferred newly-acquired ships when they restarted independent operations.

And that was the story of the ship design conflict in WG & A which have been one of the reasons why the “Great Merger” unraveled so soon.

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The Princess of the Ocean

The Princess of the Ocean of Sulpicio Lines was one peculiar ship that plied Philippine waters in the sense that she was a full-pledged liner but was just used as an overnight ferry since her fielding. There were other liners that were passed on to the Visayas-Mindanao routes before her but these happened when they were already old and were already at a disadvantage if used as liners and so they became hand-me-downs unlike the Princess of the Ocean which was fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route (the premier Visayas-Mindanao route) from the start and stayed there until she stopped sailing. The Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) also had a liner that was used in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when it was first fielded, the Our Lady of Lipa but then she was transferred in a liner route which was the Manila-Dumaguit-Roxas route and she was also used in the Palawan route, both of the liner shipping company WG&A.

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I am really not sure about the motives but one thing is sure is when the Our Lady of Lipa was first fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route on Christmas of 1995 is that Sulpicio Lines suffered a blow to their prestige as initially they only had the old and small Cagayan Princess to try to fend off the new competitor and clearly their ship was really outmatched by the ship sailing for Cebu Ferries Corporation, the regional shipping subsidiary of the merged shipping line WG&A. It was more than a year before Sulpicio Lines was able to respond because they prioritized great liners first to be able to hold their own against the onslaught of the giant shipping company WG&A. In 1997, they were able to acquire the Princess of the Ocean and instead of fielding her in a Manila route they chose to let her hold the Cagayan de Oro route and maintained her there to probably show who is the boss.

I thought at first that the Princess of the Ocean was just for show in Cagayan de Oro but I was mistaken. I was wondering if the ship was not too big for the route or even too speedy (but there were speed contests then to Cagayan de Oro and the bragging rights who got there first). But then a mariner member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) who worked with Sulpicio Lines before told me the Princess of the Ocean had enough cargo in the route including container vans transferred in Cebu from Manila. On the passenger side I really had a doubt if they can fill her 1,938 passenger capacity which was double than the normal Cebu-Cagayan de Oro ferry. I thought then her passengers were really lucky because that will mean they will usually have their choice of bunks with no regard to where they were assigned to. Whatever, the Princess of the Ocean was the biggest regular overnight ferry ever in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro and also in Jagna, Bohol as she had a weekly voyage there.

But sometimes I also wondered if it was not all a waste. To show who is the boss in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route, Sulpicio Lines had to maintain the old and obsolete cruiser liner Dipolog Princess in the Manila-Tagbilaran-Dapitan-Iligan route where she was already greatly outclassed by the ships of the competition. And another old cruiser and obsolete cruiser liner, the Iloilo Princess has to hold the Manila-Puerto Princesa route and she was also greatly outgunned there. And this is not even to mention another old and more obsolete liner, the Palawan Princess which does not even have airconditioning. I thought then that the Princess of the Ocean can hold route the Manila-Tagbilaran-Dapitan-Iligan route and maybe the Dipolog Princess can be shunted to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route for after all she can also carry a limited number of container vans but not in a RORO deck but above the hull, topside. But then she would be no match to the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Cagayan de Oro permanent ship of Cebu Ferries Corporation. Now if only the Manila Princess‘ engines were more reliable then Sulpicio Lines would have had more options. And I even thought that with weak engines this ship might have been better used as an overnight ferry as the stress on the engines would have been less.

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Emerald Okinawa by Funekichimurase

The Princess of the Ocean started life as the Emerald Okinawa of the RKK Lines of Japan. She was built by the Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure, Japan in 1974 with the ID IMO 7370454 which means her keel was laid in 1973. She was completed in February 1975 which means she was launched in 1974. Maybe the Oil Shock of 1973 affected her building as it took too long. As her name and company name shows she had a route to Okinawa which is open ocean and that is why she had a great draft especially since she does not only carry container vans in her RORO deck but also topside in her stern. Originally she only had two passenger decks and her passenger capacity was just over 1,000 persons.

Externally, the ship measured 126.1 meters in length over-all (LOA) and her length between perpendiculars (LPP) was 118.0 meters. Her breadth was 22.0 meters and her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 6,150 tons. She was powered by twin Mitsubishi-MAN engines totalling 20,000 horsepower giving her a top speed of 21 knots (which I think is rather low given her power). Incidentally, these engines were also the engines mounted on the much longer St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle and St. Ezekiel Moreno, all of Negros Navigation. The first two had design speeds too of 21 knots while being longer and the last had a design speed of 21.5 knots because she was a little shorter. Actually, the true top speed of Emerald Okinawa might have been 22 or 22.5 knots given that she can do 20 knots here even with added metal in the superstructure. That is if she was not limited by the transmission.

The Emerald Okinawa had a sister ship of the same dimensions with her, the Golden Okinawa, also of RKK Lines which also came to the Philippines to the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines as the Cagayan Bay 1. However, they have different engines as this was only powered by a pair of Mitsubishi-MAN engines with a total of 15,200 horsepower which is the same powerplant in SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5, Cotabato Princess and Nasipit Princess. There is also a claim that actually SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 were sister ships of Emerald Okinawa and Golden Okinawa although those sisters are longer by 12 meters and built by another another shipyard, the Onomichi Zosen but then that claim is very most likely true.

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In 1997, the Emerald Okinawa was sold to Sulpicio Lines and she was last RKK Lines ship that came to Sulpicio Lines (RKK lines supplied many liners to Sulpicio Lines before especially fast cruiser liners). She was then 23 years old at that time, three years more than what some falsely claim (because they have vested interests) that in Japan there is a rule that ships 20 years of age are mandatorily retired. A deck was added to her and so she became a three-passenger-deck ship with a passenger capacity now of nearly 2,000. Where before she can carry container vans topside in the stern, now that area had new scantling for the Economy Class. With the way she was rebuilt her stern had the looks now of a square-end stern. Her new depth was 8.1 meters and her new gross tonnage (GT) was 7,297. The ship’s new net tonnage (NT) was 4,218 and her deadweight tonnage (DWT) as registered here was 3,079 tons. Princess of the Ocean‘s TEU capacity was about 90.

When she came to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route, the Our Lady of Lipa of Cebu Ferries Corporation refused a head-on clash. That would have been a battle royale as they are about the same size (the Princess of the Ocean was a little bigger although their lengths are almost the same) and they have about the same speed that can be sustained which is 20 knots (not over time though). With 20 knots a 2am arrival in Cagayan de Oro is feasible with favorable tide and wind from an 8pm departure in Cebu. Watta way to titillate passengers and afford those with long connecting trips a chance to be in their homes before lunch even though it could be as far as Davao (that was the time when bus drivers still know how to press their pedal to the metal; now that is a big sin).

Cebu Ferries Corporation instead pulled out the Our Lady of Good Voyage from her Manila-Dumaguete-Dapitan and Manila-Puerto Princesa routes and she was the one which battled the Princess the Ocean for a long time but at an obvious disadvantage in size and speed and so Princess of the Ocean possessed the bragging rights. But funny the Princess of the Ocean is long gone now but the Our Lady of Good Voyage is still sailing the route as the Trans-Asia 9 (but this might not be for long now). But then who would have foreseen that Sulpicio Lines will quit passenger shipping in the aftermath of the restrictions and public furor caused by the sinking in a strong typhoon of their flagship Princess of the Stars? Who knows if that did not happen if the Princess of the Ocean is still sailing too now?

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So for 11 years the Princess of the Ocean continued to sail and serve the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route until the disaster of 2008 when Sulpicio Lines was suspended by the maritime officials from sailing (later the license to carry passengers of Sulpicio Lines was even withdrawn). However, there was also a time when she left the route like in the aftermath of the sinking of the Sulpicio Lines flagship Princess of the Orient in a typhoon too in 1998 when she was assigned the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of Cotabato Princess and that was a proof that she can be a liner if Sulpicio Lines chose so. Actually her dining rooms are not the usual that can be found in overnight ferries in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route as it is a full-pledged dining area that can sit hundreds at any given time and with the opulence if it can be called that that was handed down from Emerald Okinawa. That also means her galley was ready for a days-long voyages and passengers can be fed free three square meals a day.

As rebuilt here the Princess of the Ocean was a little squarish in lines and she had a forecastle. On the sun deck a playground and a promenade were built. She had a quarter-front ramp on the starboard and also a quarter-rear ramp on the starboard as she was designed to dock on the starboard side (there are no passenger ramps on the port side). Of course that quarter-rear ramp can also be deployed if the docking is stern-ways or Meditteranean. Another notable feature of the Princess of the Ocean was she was a bridge-control ship which means her engines can be controlled from the bridge, the reason she had more controls and instrumentation in the bridge compared to the usual liner. In bridge-control ships the navigators also know the actual situation in the engine room.

The Princess of the Ocean was a fine liner and a better overnight ship although like in half of the Sulpicio Lines fleet sometimes the maintenance of the facilities lags. When I had two female friends ride with her on the way to a visit to my place they reported some unsatisfactory observations and that detracted from the enjoyment of their trip. Of course on the flip side the fares of Sulpicio Lines are a little cheaper than that of the competition. But then who can believe now that they only charged P187 for Economy and P245 for Tourist in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route? That was how cheap it was then. Now if only those fares can be brought back then tourism will fly and the budget airlines will be dead.

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Whatever, this good ferry was killed way ahead of its time because of the great misfortune that befell Sulpicio Lines which was also a misfortune to the general ship-riding public with the exception of the victims, of course (but the general ship-riding public does not know that except for a few). Laid up from August 2008, she was finally sold in the third quarter of 2010 and was broken up on January 23, 2011 by the Jiangmen Yinhu Shipbreaking Company in Xinhui, China.

Now all that are left of this peculiar ship are memories and photographs.