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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A Very Efficient Liner For Me

When I look at and gauge a ferry I do not look only at its size and speed because I am not the “Oooh, aaah” type. I also tend to look at the other attributes of the ship including the efficiency, a quality that can be hard to quantify. But with this attitude of mine I can then appreciate other supposedly “lesser” ships and types.

One of the ferries that attracted me was the vessel Our Lady of Sacred Heart of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated or Gothong for short. She was one of the ferries that brought back Gothong into the Manila route after a hiatus in the aftermath of their split with Lorenzo Shipping Corporation when they just concentrated on Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao routes. At the time of her fielding she might have been the best ship of Gothong. She or her sister ship, the Sto. Nino de Cebu could have been the flagship of Gothong.

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Photo by Chief Ray Smith

The Our Lady of Sacred Heart was a former RORO Cargo ship in Japan which means a ship geared to loading vehicles crossing the islands and taking in just the drivers and the crews of the vehicles, primarily and so the passenger accommodations is limited and the amenities are not that complete. RORO Cargo ships are more of the utilitarian type. She had a sister ship which also came here into the fleet of Gothong, the also-well-regarded Our Lady of Medjugorje (the rebuilt former Sto. Nino de Cebu which caught fire) which looks like her.

What I noticed about the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was the small size of its engine compared to its size and passenger capacity. She only packs a single Mitsui engine of 8,000 horsepower which was even less that of her sister ship’s 9,000 horsepower. Yet she was capable of 16 knots here which was decent already compared to the other liners of her time (which was around 1990) that were also small. Yet that kind tried to pack it her in passenger capacity and were carrying small engines too and were just running at 16 knots to 17 knots too like the SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping, the Tacloban Princess and Manila Princess of Sulpicio Lines, the Zamboanga City of William Lines and San Paolo and Sta. Ana of Negros Navigation. To that class, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart belonged together with her sister ship. Among the ships mentioned, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart has the smallest engine together with the Tacloban Princess but the latter ship was smaller than her. Now imagine a ship with just 8,000 horsepower carrying 1,903 passengers with probably about 90 TEU of container vans. In passenger plus container van to engine horsepower ratio, she might have been tops in this metric or index. That for me is efficiency.

What were the origins of this ship? The Our Lady of Sacred Heart, colloquially known as “OLOSH” was built in Japan in 1978 by Mitsui Shipbuilding in Osaka, Japan for the Kuribayashi Kinkai Kisen shipping company. She was originally named as Shinsei Maru with the IMO Number 7718589 and her original dimensions were 112.5 meters by 18.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 3,149 tons and a deadweight tonnage of 3,295 tons. This ship has a deep draft and her depth was 12.3 meters.

In 1979, however, this RORO Cargo ship was lengthened to 123.0 meters with a length between perpendiculars of 115.0 meters and her gross register tonnage rose to 3,511 tons. However, she retained her original design speed of 17 knots. RORO Cargo ships were never designed to have big engines like the 146.0-meter Super Shuttle RORO 7 has only 6,990 horsepower, the 145.0-meter Super Shuttle RORO 8 has only 7,800 horsepower and yet their designed speed were 17 and 17.5 knots. Well, even the bigger Super Shuttle RORO 11 and Super Shuttle RORO 12 which are both over 160 meters have engines of only 7,900 and 6,500 horsepower, respectively, and they can do 15 and 16 knots. Such is the efficiency of a RORO Cargo ship.

In 1990, this ship together with her sister came to the Philippines for Carlos A. Gothong Lines and she was forthwith converted into a RORO-Passenger ship or ROPAX in Cebu. Additional passenger decks and accommodations were built and she became a three-passenger-deck liner. Her gross tonnage rose to 4,388 with a net tonnage of 2,237 and her deadweight tonnage was revised to 4,120 tons. In speed, however, she was down to 16 knots because of the additional metal and she had over a decade of sailing already.

She then had her passenger capacity raised to 1,903 persons which was a little outstanding for me, initially. However, I noticed the smaller Tacloban Princess has a passenger capacity of 2,009 and the 138.6-meter SuperFerry 2 has a passenger capacity of 2,643. Meanwhile, the 107.3-meter Sta. Ana has a passenger capacity of 2,106 and the 117.1-meter Zamboanga City has a passenger capacity of 1,875. And so I thought the passenger capacity of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was plausible even though the passenger capacity of her sister ship was only 1,330 persons.

When the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was fielded, she might have been the most beautiful ship of Gothong, externally. One striking features of hers is the long and high quarter-stern ramp which seemed to suggest she can dock in any kind of wharf, low or high. And for those who will notice, she seemed to be missing one smokestack or funnel (since she has only one engine and no false funnel was built). She also have no openings after two-thirds of her length early on.

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Taken from a website that cannot be remembered now. No copyright infringement intended.

In Gothong, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart did the unlikely discovery of the company, the unseemly Manila-Roxas City-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu route. Later this route was extended to Ormoc City. At first I cannot get the connection between Capiz and Leyte and yet she was successful there. It seems that for a long time already, the western Leyte area has been neglected by the other shipping companies and only fielded old and obsolete liners there. Actually her ports of call there are substitutes too for Tacloban port and Ormoc port aside from being a connection to Biliran province. And to think there is even a bus from Ormoc to San Ricardo, the southernmost town of Southern Leyte and so the ship even seemed to be a connection to Southern Leyte. In those times the earlier Manila liners to Leyte have been gone already.

The Our Lady of Sacred Heart was the best liner going to Leyte during this time and also probably the best liner too to Capiz. She was doing the western Leyte route until the “Great Merger” that created WG&A came in 1996. When that happened I had some fear for the Our Lady of Sacred Heart as the merger created surplus ships including container ships and even the Zamboanga City which came here only one year before was offered for sale. I know it was the older cruiser ships of WG&A that was more vulnerable but I was worried about the lack of speed of this ferry. At that time 16 knots seemed to be slow already as there was already a lot of ships capable of 17.5 knots and over and there was no way to coax more speed out of the ship with her single small engine.

Besides, I am not sure if WG&A really appreciated her route. Actually the company modified the route as soon as the merger happened – Roxas City was dropped and instead Masbate was substituted. Beyond that I also know the intermodal buses and trucks presented a deadly challenge to the ships calling in Leyte ports. I know that if passengers in Samar can shift from the ferries to the buses then it is highly possible that can also happen in Leyte and there is no reason why not. Daily departures and pick-up by their gates without going through the hassles in the port was a very big selling point of the buses. Meanwhile, for factories and shippers in CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), trucking in their products is easier, faster and less expensive than in hiring a container van that will fight the traffic and the various illegal exactions in Metro Manila.

In due time as I expected WG&A gave up on the western Leyte route early in this century and just “donated” its freight and passengers to the trucks and buses (when WG&A gives up on routes, do they realize that money, effort and even careers were spent before creating that route?). Maybe WG&A don’t know as it was Gothong that created the route. And then this period was also the period where they experimented on a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route to make use of two bigger ferries (the former Maynilad and the former SuperFerry 11 which were already known as Our Lady of Akita 2 and Our Lady of Banneux) and maybe WG&A thought that new route is a substitute route for western Leyte but then they also gave up on the route soon after. During that ti period, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was also doing a Sunday overnight route from Iligan to Cebu and she was very popular there as she was much better than the ships that formerly served the route like the Iligan City, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Our Lady of Manaoag)

Soon, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart found herself back in her old route of Roxas City in conjunction with the port of Dumaguit and essentially doing an overnight route. But then not too long after the “master of retreat” WG&A also gave up on this route when the buses and trucks started rolling to Panay island with the creation of the new Roxas, Oriental Mindoro to Caticlan, Malay link. And with that WG&A sold ships again to the breaks but fortunately for the Our Lady of Sacred Heart she was not yet among the unlucky ones. When that happened the Our Lady of Sacred Heart might have been at the bottom already of the new company Aboitiz Transport System, the successor company of WG&A and she was then just a little ahead of her sister ship, the Our Lady of Medjugorje. I thought then already that she was a lucky girl. It looked later that Aboitiz Transport Company or ATS was reserving her for the Palawan route which is not exactly a long route and so it suited her and there was no competition anymore when the Sulpicio Lines ferry, the Iloilo Princess burned and Negros Navigation was already headed into financial crisis and had ships seized by creditors. And so the lack of speed of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart didn’t play to her disadvantage.

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Photo by Jorg Behman. Credit also to John Luzares.

It seems the last route of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart might have been the combined Coron and Puerto Princesa route from Manila. By that time she has signs of oncoming problems with reliability and that is deadly for a single-engined ship (well, if the engine can’t be restarted then a replacement ship would have to be brought in or else tickets have to be refunded and passengers simply get angry with that. Besides, the Aboitiz Transport Company was already cutting on routes and that includes her subsidiary Cebu Ferries Company which are doing the Visayas-Mindanao routes. With the pressure of the intermodal system which relies on buses and trucks plus the short-distance ferry-RORO like in Batangas and Matnog, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart has no more short route to go and Palawan was her last possible stand as she cannot be fielded on longer routes like Mindanao or compete in major ports and routes as she is not a SuperFerry. She might have been an efficient ship but she was never meant for long routes nor for major routes. With the addition of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18, the lesser SuperFerry 1, SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 have to go to lesser routes and that included the Palawan route. It was the end of the line for the “lucky” (until then) Our Lady of Sacred Heart.

I was just wondering why she and her sister the Our Lady of Medjugorje were not sent to the Visayas-Mindanao routes of the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC). They could have competed with the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines pair of Asia China and Trans-Asia (1) in the Cagayan de Oro route (and shift their Our Lady of Good Voyage in another route). Actually, the Trans-Asia pair (and sister ships) were smaller but were utilizing engines even bigger than than the ATS pair at 10,400 horsepower each (and the Trans-Asia pair were older too by Date of Build). Maybe Aboitiz and Cebu Ferries does not want a sister ships to sister ships battle? In speed, the former Gothong sister ships can still match the Trans-Asia sister ships (if they were inferior it will not be by over 1 knot and that doesn’t matter much and they can just depart earlier). Was that the reason why they chickened out? In amenities they can match the highly-regarded Trans-Asia pair.

I can see some incongruence here because Cebu Ferries Corporation decided to retain their older and smaller ferry Our Lady of the Rule when that venerable old Gothong Ferry has a same but not identical 8,000-horsepower engine (but twin) when the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was even faster (and definitely more good-looking). But by this time it seems Aboitiz was already bent on shifting to the Cebu Ferries series which might have been faster later because they are smaller ships (their average horsepower was just about the same of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart). On the average that series was shorter than the Our Lady of Sacred Heart by 35 meters. Maybe they do not need the extra capacity as Cebu Ferries Corporation was already weakening in cargo because they charge the highest rates and they were not that proficient in palletized operations which is the norm in the intra-Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao routes. Maybe also there was also the decision already that the Cebu Ferries Corporation will just compete in a few Visayas-Mindanao ports and routes as the company was already outmaneuvered by the competition especially from Cokaliong Shipping Lines Incorporated (CSLI) and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which are good in taking in shippers and making them stick.

The near-equivalent of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart, the Our Lady of Good Voyage also outlasted her. This ship has just 400 horsepower less than OLOSH but she is smaller at 109.2 meters and her passenger capacity is only at 1,076 at her bridge is already near mid-ship. She was also among the smaller liners with small engines but she was fielded later although by age she is almost the age of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and her engines were not much that better. In accommodations she might have even been less than the Our Lady of Sacred Heart.

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Photo by “suro yan”

Unlucky this time, in late 2005, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart found herself on a lonely, one-way voyage to face the cutters of the Bangladesh shipbreakers and the ship was broken up in early 2006. She was only 28 years old then, young by the age of ferries of today. That only means she died before her time.

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

The MV Asia Japan, the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated (TASLI) fleet is the Asia Japan most would likely remember. But she was already the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia fleet as two previous cruiser ships named Asia Japan came before her in the Trans-Asia fleet Shipping Line. The third Asia Japan I am describing here is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship and not a cruiser ship like the first two to carry that name. Her company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated is a regional shipping company based in Cebu that is sailing Visayas-Mindanao routes.

The first Asia Japan was the former Ishu Maru from Kyushu Yusen of Japan with the IMO Number 5164459. She was built in 1957 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1975. This ship was later sold to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the second Guada Cristy of that company. The second Asia Japan, meanwhile, was the former Nankai Maru from Nankai Kisen of Japan with the IMO Number 7130191. She was built in 1956 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1974 where she was first known as the Solar before she became the second Asia Japan (Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated was first known as Solar Shipping Line Incorporated). This ship was later sold also to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the first Guada Cristy. She was wrecked in 1990, the reason why there became a second Guada Cristy.

The second Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated in 1988 when the third Asia Japan was purchased by the company from Ise Bay Ferry or Ise-wan Ferry. This Japanese company sold this ship, their Atsumi Maru because their brand-new Atsumi Maru was already delivered to them. Incidentally, this successor Atsumi Maru also came to the Philippines in 2007 to the fleet of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI) where she is known as the Maria Oliva.

The earlier Atsumi Maru was built by Naikai Zosen Taguma Works in Taguma, Innoshima, Japan in 1973. She is steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a transom stern, two masts and a single passenger deck. A RORO ship, she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp and a single car deck. She has an over-all length of 64.0 meters, a length between perpendiculars of 60.3 meters and a maximum breadth of 13.1 meters. Her original Gross Register Tons (GRT) was 990 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)was 403 tons. She is equipped with 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 16 knots on two screws. In the Philippines, her probable sister ships are the late Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries Incorporated (though their bows are different) and the Reina Timotea of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction sister company of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated.

When Atsumi Maru arrived in the Philippines in 1988 to become the third Asia Japan, another deck was added to her to increase the passenger capacity. She was also converted into an overnight ferry with bunks. With that, her Gross Tonnage rose to 1,302 with a Net Tonnage of 359 and her Deadweight Tonnage also increased to 443 tons. Her new passenger capacity was 454 persons in a three-class configuration – Cabin, Tourist and open-air Economy. She had a good restaurant, a bar-lounge, a lobby and a front desk. This Asia Japan already had a Hotel Department aside from the Deck Department and Engine Department, one of the first regional ships to have such distinction. Maybe that has a connection to its first route Zamboanga which I will discuss later. For easier docking this ship is also already equipped with side thrusters at the bow. She also had a cargo ramp at the port side and two passenger ramps at the stern and another ramp at the port side.

Her first route was the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Zamboanga route. This was still the time when big Cebu regional shipping companies Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, George & Peter Lines and the Zamboanga-based Aleson Shipping Lines were still giving much importance to the Cebu-Zamboanga connection via Dumaguete (this was later downgraded by the opening of the Dapitan-Dumaguete RORO connection). It was amazing then that a new ship like the third Asia Japan will be fielded to this route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was still using their older overnight ferry-cruisers in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route which was the premier Visayas-Mindanao route.

Later, the third Asia Japan was also fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines began selling their old overnight cruisers in the early 1990’s. But with the arrival of the new and bigger RORO series of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines – the Trans-Asia (1) in 1993, the Asia Philippines in 1994 and the Asia China in 1995, Asia Japan was relegated to the secondary routes of the company like Cebu-Iloilo. Very soon the Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry wars which was started with the creation of the big Cebu Ferries Company started and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines had to reserve her best and biggest ferries to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro premier route. This was also marked by the withdrawal of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cebu-Zamboanga route and just sticking to cargo there with the Asia Pacific. The coming of the more superior Lady Mary Joy (1) of Aleson Shipping Lines practically closed the door to them in Zamboanga (this Aleson ship is different from the current Lady Mary Joy 1 of the company). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was immediately under siege by the much bigger Cebu Ferries Corporation as they bore the brunt of the offensive of that subsidiary of the giant William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping line.

The third Asia Japan sailed many secondary routes for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Before the end of the old millennium the assignments of the fleet got quaky with the losses of the Asia South Korea (grounding and sinking) and Asia Thailand (fire) with no clear replacement. Not long after, this the RORO Asia Singapore, the Second, was also sold to F.J. Palacio Lines. Later, the third Asia Japan was assigned to the Cebu-Masbate route of the company. She was a big success there as that route of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was practically a monopoly. And Masbatenos were not disappointed at her appointments especially since she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ferry, a route which takes about a day with its two stop-overs. In routes such as this, the passengers’ comfort and sustenance needs are greater than that of a simple overnight ferry.

Once, I booked a ticket from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro hoping to catch either the Trans-Asia (1) or Asia China. Lo and behold, when I reached the waterfront what I saw waiting for us was the Asia Japan. I actually grumbled and said we are entitled to a discount as our fare was supposedly on that superior-than-her sister ships. I can accept the third Asia Japan as a Cebu-Masbate ferry as there was none better than her in that route (her reliever Asia Brunei was just as good) but the Cebu-Cagayan route is littered with superior overnight ferries that was at or near the level of Manila liners like the Princess of the Ocean, the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Our Lady of the Rule and the Dona Rita Sr.

I was disappointed. The aircon was not strong and the restaurant was no longer as good as before. Maybe her best Hotel Department crewmen were already assigned to the better overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. And then I was furious that when I woke up we were still just at the entrance of Macalajar Bay and still distant from Cagayan de Oro. Other passengers were already impatient and I even saw one flash the pumping arm sign to the bridge which is a universal sign of “Hurry up!”. Passengers in this route were used to daybreak or even dawn arrivals which were needed by passengers still travelling 300 land kilometers or over by buses or commuter vans like me.

Soon, some were groaning they were already hungry. I was, too. I know that by MARINA rules they should have fed us breakfast but there was no decent breakfast to speak of even if one was willing to pay. It was a personal disaster to me as I was a diabetic. We finally reached Cagayan de Oro port and to a man I know all were disappointed. They should never have substituted Asia Japan in that route because it will just be a disaster for the goodwill and reputation of the company like what happened. I asked of the speed and a crewman grimly admitted she can just do 10 knots then, best. Use that in a 134-nautical mile route with a departure of 8PM and no breakfast; it does not need coconuts to foresee the consequences. I thought they should just better stick Asia Japan to the 110-nautical mile Cebu-Masbate route where the expectations of the passengers is not so high. In an afterthought, yes, I also realized she has been sailing for nearly nearly twenty years already and it seems time has not been very kind to her engines.

Not very long after that Asia Japan was seen by members of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) to be just laid up in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, tied up. It was intriguing the members especially since the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was very thin for its routes. Already gone were the Asia Brunei, Asia Hongkong which were both sold and soon Asia Malaysia was gone, too (she capsized and sank off Iloilo). And there was the third Asia Japan just lying around there. That time, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cannot even serve her Nasipit route and just a single ship from two was serving her Iloilo route.

Once, on a visit to Ouano wharf, we were able to ask the in-charge of the ship her state. He told us third Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line to Key West Shipping Line Corporation which were operators of tugboats and partner then in the West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated operating container ships. We saw some works being done and the in-charge told us the ship will be used for a Cebu-Zamboanga run. That was intriguing as she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ship and neither Key West Shipping Line Corporation nor West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated have operated ferries before. I am not even sure if they were holders of a franchise (CPC) in that route but in case it will be a welcome development since there was just one ferry left in the Cebu-Zamboanga route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines and she was already very slow then.

Soon the little works we observed in Ouano wharf stopped and the next thing we knew was she was already in Nagasaka Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud by the Cansaga Bay and bridge. We thought then further works will done there especially since the in-charge in Ouano admitted to us that the third Asia Japan doesn’t have strong engines anymore. Then me and a fellow ship spotter were able to board the ship and meet her new officer-in-charge, Engr. Rey Bobiles, the naval architect of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, a Bicol shipping company. It was a surprise and a further intrigue!

Yes, the third Asia Japan was renamed into Strong Heart 1, a show she was really transferred to the Key West Shipping Line Corporation as all the names of the vessels of the company starts with “Strong” like Strong Will, Strong Devotion, Strong Desire, Strong Dignity, Strong Bliss, etc. No, she will no longer be sailing for Zamboanga as she has already been sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and will become a Bicol ferry. It turned out that Trans-Asia Shipping Line sold her to Key West Shipping Line Corporation to settle fuel debts dacion en pago. I suddenly realized the connection. Trans-Asia Shipping Line was also intending to sell Trans-Asia 3 because “she consumes too much fuel”. It seemed believable at first glance because she has 2 x 4,500 horsepower engines. Then an investigation with the proper authorities commenced and it turned out Trans-Asia Shipping Line was simply a victim of a fuel scam as in fuel pilferage, a scourge of our local transport fleet. It happens even in the tankers, in the fishing fleets, in land tankers and in trucks.

Strong Heart 1 stayed very long in Nagasaka Shipyard with few works being done. She simply became the office of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and clearing house for the new crew recruits of the company and dormitory at the same time. She can stay in the shipyard long because Sta. Clara Shipping Company and her sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are stockholders in Nagasaka Shipyard. Actually, vessels of the companies were withdrawn from the servicing of Mayon Docks Incorporated in Tabaco City in Albay and transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Bicol ships also owned by the related stockholders of the two companies were also being transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Nagasaka Shipyard was the former Villono Shipyard before the change in the ownership structure (Engr. David Villono, the founder is still the head of this shipyard).

While in the shipyard engine parts were ordered fabricated in Japan. When that arrived in 2014, serious restoration work was done on Strong Heart 1 which was already renamed to Nathan Matthew. Since she has lain untended in sea water for several years she was already rusty and when walking around one has to be careful not to fall in the weak deck plates and stairs. It was even raining at times inside some portions of her already. So, she was stripped to metal by sandblasting, her weak hull and deck plates were replaced and her engines were repaired.

A portion of her superstructure in the aft of the second deck was removed too since it was thought her space for passengers as a short-distance ferry will be enough since she will simply be fitted with sitting accommodations. With this, her gross tonnage was reduced to 1,030 nominal tons and her net tonnage was also reduced to 357 nominal tons. Her passenger capacity increased to about 800, however. So the rumor and the wish that she will still be an overnight ferry in the Liloan-Lipata route never materialized. Drivers and passengers in that route wished there will be a replacement of the Ocean King I in that route since when they arrive from Manila or Luzon they are already badly in need of an accommodation where they can lie down and sleep.

Upon finishing works in Nagasaka, the Nathan Matthew was first fielded in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. I don’t know if they want to tickle the Masbatenos but for sure many there will be many there who will recognize her even if she was already converted to a short-distance ferry, even though the bow ramp has changed and even though they chopped off part of the second passenger deck and even though the name has changed. Even with alterations, I noticed passengers really familiar with a ship still recognize them even after a long absence. Nathan Matthew won’t be an exemption.

She did not stay long there in that route, however. In not a long time she was transferred to the new Liloan, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. The company has long been a holder of a franchise (formally Certificate of Public Convenience) in that route but it is only now that they had a ship that can serve there. Right now, Nathan Matthew is the biggest ship in that route especially since the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation ships (the Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco) are already gone in that route.

There, Nathan Matthew is directly competing with the newly-fielded FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the obsolescent Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping and the Cargo RORO LCTs chartered by NN+ATS which is aimed against the truck congestion in that route (also for really heavy load like earth movers and trailers capable of carrying that). However, that route is slowly being squeezed by the shorter Benit, San Ricardo to Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI). Now it seems a new port will be built in San Ricardo, S. Leyte and if that will materialize that might be the end of the Liloan-Lipata route.

In won’t mean the end of Nathan Matthew, however, as she might simply be transferred to the new San Ricardo route. Otherwise, she can also be fielded in the other routes of owner Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (making her more well-travelled). It won’t be much of a burden for them because her owners are known also for having deep pockets, relative by Bicol standards. They are even operating their own port now in Allen, Northern Samar.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is known for taking care well of old ships. They are actually allergic to breakers, to put it in another way. And with the support of Nagasaka Shipyard, this refurbished ship looks like it still has a long way to go. With the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation officers and crew steeped and trained in the dangerous swells of San Bernardino Strait I don’t see her suffering the fate of the capsized and sank Maharlika Dos in Surigao Strait, knock on wood.

Long live then this well-travelled ship!