The Destruction of the Philippine Merchant Marine Fleet In World War II

When the Pacific War (this is what World War II was known in our hemisphere) erupted, our biggest and best ships were immediately requisitioned by the US to serve as transports and that is normal procedure in a war. And then when it looked like the United States will not be able to hold the Philippines and Washington. D.C. has already decided to concentrate first in the European theater of war, the oceangoing ships of the Philippines were sent to the Western hemisphere to be used there.  Then our other big ships which were capable of the distance were ordered to evacuate to Australia to serve as supply ships from that country to Bataan by running the Japanese sea blockade. However, the old, big ships were left in the country and these were already near 60 years old with a few even older than that (that was how tough the steam ships then). New, medium-sized passenger-cargo ships were also left behind in the country together with the smaller ones.

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However, to still connect to the islands and the disparate forces, the United States command in the Philippines created the US Army Transport (USAT) which was otherwise known as the PI Support Fleet (“PI” stands for Philippine Islands, the name of the country before the war). This was a motley collection of 25 ships which were mostly liners before the war. The fleet was mainly drawn from the shipping company La Naviera Filipina of the Escano and Aboitiz families and its sister company Cebu-Bohol Ferry Company (this company existed after the war for a time too). From those two shipping companies were drawn the passenger-cargo ships Bohol II (91.5m x 12.5m, b. 1906), Agustina (41.0m x 8.2m, b. 1929), Elcano (66.7m x 11.8m, b. 1939), Kolambugan (55.2m x 9.2m, b. 1929), Legaspi, Princess of Cebu which is the former Marapara (47.2m x 9.2m, b. 1931) and Surigao (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938).

From big shipping firm Madrigal & Co., the Lepus (81.0m x 11.5m, b. 1906) and Regulus (69.9m x  10.9m, b. 1911) were requisitioned and from Tabacalera (Compania General de Tobacos de Filipinas) came the Compania de Filipinas (54.9m x 9.1m, b. 1890) and Emilia (43.5m x 7.8m, b. 1931). The passenger-cargo ships Governor Smith and Governor Taft (42.5m x 8.2m, b. 1930) were drawn from the Visayan Transportation Co. and from Insular Navigation Co., another Cebu ferry company, came the Katipunan (41.4m x 5.7m, b. 1875) and Princesa (46.9m x 8.5m, 1930).  From the new Manila Steamship Co., successor of Ynchausti y Compania, the biggest inter-island ferry then, the Mayon (105.9m x 15.4m, b. 1930) was also requisitioned along with the Luzon (79.5m x 11.3m, b. 1905) of Compania Maritima. The De La Rama Steamship Co. sent their Kanlaon (53.7m x 9.2m, b. 1931) and Y. Yamane contributed their ship Bacolod . Other requisitioned ships were the Yusang, Hai Kwang, Condensa, Talisay and Dumaguete along with the La Estrella Caltex (44.2m x  8.6m, b. 1931) of The Texas Co. (Philippines) which was a tanker.

The PI Support Fleet, lacking warship support because the US Asiatic Fleet retreated very early to Australia just became a “Suicide Fleet”. None of them survived the war. The ships that were ordered to Darwin, Australia were another “Suicide Fleet” as many of them were caught when they were hiding in Paluan Bay, Mindoro after a delivery to Bataan. Aside from Japanese shelling or aircraft bombing, these fleets had instructions to scuttle if caught by the Japanese or if they can’t retreat to Australia. The US decided to just sacrifice our merchant fleet and its crews rather than risk their warships. The defense of Australia was their priority and not their colony, the Philippine Islands.

With the ships brought to Australia, from the port of Darwin in Northern Territory, Australia, these made supply runs to Bataan where General Douglas MacArthur concentrated his forces hoping they can hold out until supplies and reinforcements arrive (a false hope it turned out). But not being a shipping person, he may have failed to understand that that was an almost impossible expectation because of convoys will be sitting ducks if the rest of the islands are controlled by the Japanese and at that time the Imperial Japanese Navy was stronger than the US Asiatic Fleet (wasn’t there a lesson in the difficulties of the Malta and Northern convoys then?).

The loss of our passenger shipping fleet started in the very early days of the Pacific War on December 1941 during the air attacks of the Japanese especially in Manila and Manila Bay. Some of those lost passenger-cargo liners in the attacks there were the big Corregidor  (96.3m x 12.5m, b. 1911), the medium-sized Samal  (71.7m x 10.5m, b. 1897)  and the small Romblon which was the former Montanes (45.6m x 7.6m, b. 1889), all of Compania Maritima. Also lost were the oceangoing Sagoland  (131.1m x 16.5m, b. 1913) of Madrigal & Co., the smaller ships Ethel Edwards (42.1m x 7.7m, b. 1919) of Smith Navigation Co., the Governor Wright (48.1m x 8.6m, b. 1938) of the Visayan Transportation Co, Inc. and the Surigao of La Naviera Filipina (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938).

When it became clear that Manila would soon fall to the Japanese since General Douglas MacArthur declared it as an “open city” which means it would not be defended (this is to lessen the destruction and loss of lives since it was not militarily defensible anymore already), more ships were scuttled in Manila Bay because it was thought it was already too dangerous to flee south to the Visayas and Mindanao. Sank intentionally to prevent them from falling into enemy hands and hence be used by them were the brand-new Antonia of Aboitiz & Co. Inc. (48.0m x 8.6m, b. 1939), the big Bohol (91.5m x 12.5m, b. 1906) of Compania Maritima, the Vizcaya (66.1m x 9.0m, b. 1890) of Manila Steamship Inc., the Magallanes (74.5m x 10.1m, b. 1880),of Gutierrez Hermanos, the Montanes (64.1m x 9.1m, b. 1889) of J. Garcia Alonso, the Churruca (57.9m x 8.0m, b. 1879) of the United Navigation Inc., and the Bicol (45.8m x 7.9m, b. 1901) of the Manila Railroad Co., a government-owned company.

In the first three months of the war, there were also ship losses in the Japanese air attacks in the provinces. That casualties included the Cebu (76.4m x  10.4m, b. 1900) which was lost on New Year’s Day off Mindoro, the Luzon (79.5m x  11.3m, b. 1905), the Islas Filipinas (64.0m x 9.3m, b. 1886) and the Leyte which was the former Romulus (64.0m x 8.9m, b. 1879), all of Compania Maritima. Also sank were the brand-new Surigao (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938) of La Naviera Filipina, the big Bisayas (86.9m x 13.7m, b. 1912), the Lanao (90.6m x 14.1m, b. 1896) and the Mayon (105.9m x 15.4m, b. 1930) of Manila Steamship Co. which was one of the biggest liners in the country then.

From the supply runs from Australia to Bataan that sailed mainly in the night, these ships tried to hide in Paluan Bay in northwestern Mindoro as Manila Bay was already controlled then by the Japanese. However, in not a long time, they were discovered by the Japanese and bombed by aircraft and a few were lost or damaged in February and March of 1942. Among them was the new and beautiful liner Don Esteban (81.4m x 11.4m, b. 1936) of the De la Rama Steamship Co.

Some others were lost by surface action on local supply runs like what happened to the brand-new Legaspi and Elcano of La Naviera Filipina which were intercepted by Japanese destroyers in the Verde Island Passage on separate occasions then shelled and sunk or beached on different occasions when they refused to stop. Piteous as actually there is really no way a slow passenger-cargo vessel can outrun a fast destroyer which has three times its speed. Well, maybe that was the reason why two of the ships ordered from Japan by Everett Steamship for Philippine Steam Navigation Company or PSNC in 1955 were named after them as they were heroic ships in the war.

In April 1942, when Bataan fell and the military situation looked hopeless more ships were scuttled and this included the bulk of our smaller ships that were based mainly in the provinces and doing overnight routes and other short-distance routes. Among them were the first ship of Sweet Lines (Central Shipping Corporation then), the Masayon (32.4m x 6.1m, b. 1936) and the first ship of Go Thong, the LUX (24.0m x 4.5m, b.  Cebu as home port of many short-distance and overnight ferries led the scuttling of ships and that also included the overnight ferries of the Escano and Aboitiz families that were not part of La Naviera Filipina.

In ordering the scuttling and commandeering of ships, the US promised that the ships will be replaced by them after the war. Almost all complied with that order except for Vicente Madrigal (and Tabacalera or Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, the leading tobacco firm then) and so many of his ships were captured by the Japanese and used by them in the war as their transports. The Americans were furious with Vicente Madrigal and maybe that was one the reason why after the war he was tried as a “collaborator” of the Japanese. Actually, when Manila fell to the Japanese on February 1942, these liners that cannot make it to Australia have nowhere to go as Manila port was the home port of the bulk of the liners. Fuel, parts and personnel almost immediately became a problem, too.

The biggest of our liners including our oceangoing liners were commandeered by the Americans to the US and pressed into their convoys to Europe or used as their transports in the Western hemisphere and some were lost in the war in this duty. Meanwhile, the ships that were captured by the Japanese and used by them in the war were mostly sunk in the US counter-attack and only about two survived the war and returned to their owners. These were the Argus of Madrigal & Co. which was seized by the Japanese in a Hongkong shipyard and the Anakan of  Manila Steamship Co. Inc. And of the three big, brand-new ships of the De la Rama Steamship commandeered by the US to their country, two survived and was later returned to them after the war and these were the Dona Aniceta and Dona Nati. However the Dona Aurora (133.9m x 17.0m, b. 1939) was lost together with their beautiful liners the Don Isidro (97.8m x 14.0m, b. 1939) and the Don Esteban .

With the war the Philippine merchant marine fleet including about 70 liners and oceangoing ships (compare it to the 60 liners of the late 1990s for perspective) practically sank because mainly it has nowhere to go and war forbids it fall into enemy hands. These also include the so-many overnight ships and short-distance ships connecting near islands where ships run during the day. But still many of the latter survived especially the small wooden-hulled ones because they have limited use in a war effort.

What will come next, of course, are shortages and that is most felt in the cities (and that is one reason why some people moved back to the provinces during the war). With the lack of ships and fuel during the war, traders again used wooden hulls and sails and among the users of it then was the young John Gokongwei, later a leading industrialist and tycoon who traded between Manila and Cebu during the war. But like in all wars, travel and movement of goods suffered a lot along with the people.

The Pacific War was a dark era in Philippine shipping history.

 

The Result of the Losses of the MV Leyte, MV Guimaras and MV Dadiangas and the Scrapping of the MV Mindanao of Compania Maritima

Nowadays, those four liners of the defunct but once great Compania Maritima will no longer ring a bell to most people. Even in the years when the four were still sailing those were not among the best or the primary liners of the said shipping line except for the MV Mindanao which was actually the second ship to carry that name in Compania Maritima. And so what was the significance then of their losses? This I will try to explain.

The shipping company Compania Maritima of the Philippines (as there were other shipping companies of that name abroad and even in Spain, the country of origin of our Compania Maritima) was the biggest in local passenger shipping from probably  the late Spanish era and until just before the company folded sometime in 1984 at the peak of the political and economic crisis besetting the country then. And so, the company had a run at the top of our passenger shipping field for nearly a century and that is probably a record that can no longer be broken. Compania Maritima in English means “Maritime Company”.

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The logo of Compania Maritima (Credits to Lindsay Bridge)

When the Pacific War ended and the shipping companies were still struggling to get back on its feet they were dependent on the war surplus ships that were being handed down by the Americans. Although Compania Maritima was also a recipient of these kind of ships their rise was not dependent on it as they were capable of acquiring surplus ships from Europe using their Spanish connections (the owners of the company, the Fernandez Hermanos were dual Filipino and Spanish citizens). Their contemporaries Madrigal Shipping and Manila Steamship (the Elizalde shipping company) were also capable of that (now who remembers those two shipping companies?) but their acquisitions were old ships that I suspect were castoffs from convoy duty during the war. In comparison, Compania Maritima’s ships from Europe were just a few years old.

Right off the bat, Compania Maritima had the biggest passenger fleet in local shipping after the war and their best ships were the biggest ferries in the Liberation and post-Liberation years. Aside from their war-surplus ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships which were refrigerated cargo ships during the war, Compania Maritima had ships whose origins were as liners in Europe and it definitely has a difference over passenger ships whose origins were as cargo ships. Among the ships from Europe was their first flagship, the MV Cebu and the sister ships MV Panay and MV Jolo. The latter two were fast cruiser ships of that early Republic shipping years.

Locally, it was almost always that Compania Maritima will have the best and biggest ships and the biggest fleet. They were also among the first to order brand-new liners like the MV Luzon in 1959, the MV Visayas in 1963 and the MV Filipinas in 1968. When the three were fielded those ships were not only the biggest but also the best (as compared to the ex-”C1-M-AV1” and the ex-”C1A” types which were big but not really that luxurious). Not included in this comparison were liners whose main function were as oceangoing liners. Among these are the brand-new ships of De la Rama Steamship which were leased from the government that later will become the subject of a dispute in court.

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

A ship bigger than the three mentioned was the MV Mindanao of the company which came in 1970 from Europe but was not a brand-new ship having been built in 1959. But her distinction when she was fielded was she was the biggest liner sailing then and even bigger than the flagship MV Filipinas. It was only in December 1979 when her record length will be broken when the MV Dona Virginia came to William Lines.

The MV Mindanao was the last-ever passenger-cargo ship acquired by Compania Maritima and the 1970’s was the decade when they will lose a lot of ships as casualties of typhoons. Some will sink, some will capsize and some will be wrecked. Now those three categories are all different in the determination of the loss of a ship. Not all ship losses actually result in the disappearance of the ship below water. In “wrecking” the ship will still be above water in some beach. In “capsizing”, there are many cases when part of the ship can still be above water or just below the waterline, visible and accessible. But many times also the ship will be in deep waters and so that is called “capsizing and sinking”. If the hull is holed or broke into two it will simply be “sinking”.

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Credits to Gorio Belen

The MV Leyte was a small passenger-cargo ship, technically a multi-day liner but by no means a luxury liner as she was just a former “FS” cargo ship during the war which was converted for passenger-cargo use. As a passenger-cargo ship, her career evolved mainly in serving her namesake island and province through the port of Tacloban in a route extending up to Butuan and Nasipit. There are times though when she also substituted in other routes outside Leyte. The ship was originally known as USS FS-386 in the US Army.

This small ship came to Compania Maritima in 1947. Although 53.9 meters in length over-all and 560 gross register tons this ship was lengthened to 66.2 meters with a gross register tonnage of 730 tons. Lengthening of ex-”FS” ships was common then (most were actually lengthened) in order to increase their passenger and cargo capacities. The speed of this type of ship was between 10 and 11 knots and their accommodations were rather spartan.

1965 0201 MV Guimaras

Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

The MV Guimaras was not a small liner for her time with a length over-all of 98.6 meters, a gross register tonnage of 3,555 tons and a net register of 1,868 tons. Translated to more modern measurements that is approximately the dimensions of the fast cruiser liners of William Lines of the 1970’s. She actually had the dimensions of the sank MV Cebu City and MV Don Juan which were both flagships but her breadth was one meter wider. It is hard to compare her with the ROPAXes of today as this type have greater beams than the cruiser ships of old and these are generally taller. The “fatter” MV Don Claudio is actually a nearer match but still the breadth of the MV Guimaras was bigger. The MV Guimaras was actually bigger than the flagships of the other shipping companies of her era.

The MV Guimaras was one of the former liners from Europe that came here in the 1960’s to bolster our fleets when surplus ships from the war were no longer available in the market. It was not only Compania Maritima which took this route but also Carlos A. Gothong & Company (the yet-undivided company), William Lines and Sweet Lines. These ferries from Europe actually averaged 100 meters in length over-all and that will give an approximate idea of their size (gross register tonnage is sometimes a subjective measure). On the average their speed was about 15 knots but the speed of the MV Guimaras tops that at 16.5 knots.

The MV Guimaras was the former refrigerated cargo ship Sidi-Aich of the Societe Generale des Transports Maritimes a Vapeur (SGTM) of Marseilles, France and she was completed in 1957 and so when she came she was not yet an old ship. The route of the MV Guimaras from the time she was fielded until she lost was the Manila-Iloilo-Cotabato route although at times she also dropped anchor too in Zamboanga port which was just on the way.

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The Kitala (Credits to Jean Pierre Le Fustec)

The MV Dadiangas was a bigger ship than the MV Guimaras but built in the same year and also in France where she was known as the Kitala of the Compagnie Maritime des Chargeurs Reunis. Like the MV Guimaras she was also a refrigerated cargo ship with passengers and the advantage of this type is air-conditioning and refrigeration is available from the start and so they can be refitted as luxury liners.

This ship was 109.5 meters in length over-all with a gross register tonnage, the cubic volume of 4,143 tons and a net register tonnage of 3,240 tons. For comparison, this ship is already the size of the MV Dipolog Princess and MV Iloilo Princess, both of which reached the new millennium. She came to Compania Maritima in 1969 and her first name in the company was MV Isla Verde. She was subsequently renamed to MV Dadiangas in 1976.

Like the biggest ships of Compania Maritima, the MV Isla Verde also spent part of her career on overseas routes. When she was sailing the local seas her route was to Dadiangas (a.k.a. General Santos City) and Davao. In the later part of her career she was paired with the MV Leyte Gulf of the company in the same route. She is also a relatively fast ship for her time at 16 knots.

A summer Signal No. 3 typhoon of 150-kph center wind strength, the Typhoon “Atang” caught the MV Leyte on a voyage from Manila and she was wrecked in the southwestern portion of Sibuyan island trying to reach shelter, the usual predicament then of ships without radars during the storms of those times. The MV Leyte was almost on a collision course with the oncoming typhoon and so she actually preceded the fate of the MV Princess of the Stars in almost the same area 30 years later. The ship met her sad fate on April 20, 1978.

Meanwhile, the MV Guimaras was caught by the twin storms Typhoon “Etang” and Typhoon “Gening” which intensified the habagat waves and created a storm surge. The MV Guimaras was driven ashore on July 7, 1979 a kilometer south of Turtle Island in Campomanes Bay in Sipalay, Negros Occidental. She could have been trying to reach port as Sipalay has a port or she might have been trying to seek shelter in the bay. And on July 18 of that same year she was officially abandoned. The wreck of MV Guimaras is still there today in shallow waters of about 20 feet and is already a dive site. According to a website, the wreck of the MV Guimaras is already broken now.

In studying maritime losses one lesson that can be gained is it is not a good idea to try to outrun a typhoon or even a tropical storm (the modern terminology if the center wind is below 120kph). This is what MV Dadiangas tried to do when she passed the eastern seaboard of Mindanao on the way back to Manila from Davao. A tropical storm, the Typhoon “Huaning” was also on its way to Surigao and Leyte but was still then at some distance and still weak. But sea disturbance is not confined to within the walls of the typhoon and so the MV Dadiangas ran aground and was wrecked in Siargao island and to think the maximum strength of the typhoon as it was called then was only 95kph. MV Dadiangas was wrecked on June 23, 1980 and was broken up in 1981.

Three lost ships that at first look do not have that much significance. But then the big MV Mindanao of the company was also broken up in 1980. What does it matter here now in the annals of Philippine passenger shipping?

In the closing years of the 1970’s especially in 1978, Compania Maritima, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were already at near-parity with each other in fleet size and quality especially after the slew of purchases of fast cruisers liners of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines. Meanwhile, Compania Maritima was no longer buying ferries after 1970 and in the 1970’s the company had a lot of ship losses. That means a net decrease for their passenger-cargo fleet while the passenger fleets of her main competitors were getting bigger.

It has long been my wonder if Compania Maritima was ever overtaken as the local Number 1 before their demise. Upon further peering it seems with the consecutive losses of the MV Leyte, MV Guimaras and MV Dadiangas and the scrapping of the MV Mindanao was the tipping point in the relative parity of the three companies. After that the two Chinoy shipping companies were already ahead by a little. The acquisition of William Lines of their new flagship MV Dona Virginia in December 1979 and of the MV Philippine Princess by Sulpicio Lines in 1981 plus their good salvage job on the burned MV Don Sulpicio which became the MV Dona Paz in 1981 were the final additions that pushed William Lines and Sulpicio Lines clearly ahead of Compania Maritima and that was epoch-making as the run on the top of Compania Maritima after nearly a century was finally broken. And to think Sulpicio Lines also lost their MV Dona Paulina in a wrecking in Canigao Island on May 21, 1980 and their old MV Don Manuel had a non-fatal collision on the same year.

By 1981 Compania Maritima only had 3 original liners (the MV Filipinas, MV Luzon and MV Visayas) plus one former refrigerated cargo ship from Europe (the MV Leyte Gulf) and one former ”C1-M-AV1” ship (the MV Samar) plus a few ex-”FS” ships that were not all in passenger service. By that year, William Lines had 6 fast cruiser liners already (the MV Cebu City, MV Misamis Occidental, MV Manila City, MV Cagayan de Oro City, MV Ozamis City and the MV Tacloban City) plus a former refrigerated ship from Europe (the MV Davao City) and 10 ex-”FS” ships in liner and overnight routes. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines had 5 fast cruiser liners already (the MV Philippine Princess, MV Don Enrique, Don MV Don Eusebio, MV Dona Paz and MV Dona Marilyn) plus 2 former refrigerated cargo ships from Europe (the MV Dona Angelina and MV Dona Helene), 4 other ships from Europe (the MV Dona Vicenta, MV Don Camilo, MV Dona Gloria and the MV Dona Julieta), the Don Ricardo and MV Don Carlos which were from Japan, the ex-”FS” ships Don Victoriano I and the MV Don Alfredo, the MV Dona Lily from Australia which was the size of an “FS” ship plus the local builds MV Ethel and MV Jeanette. On the balance, in 1981 Sulpicio Lines might already have a very slight pull over William Lines which was a very great comeback from the split of Carlos A. Gothong & Co. in 1972.

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The remains of Compania Maritima in Cebu

To repeat, even without the MV Dona Virginia and the MV Philippine Princess, the two Chinoy shipping lines were already ahead of Compania Maritima. And if the Compania Maritima, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines had rough parity in 1978 what probably tipped the balance were the three lost ships of Compania Maritima and the breaking-up of MV Mindanao in 1980. Four lost liners without replacements. And that is the problem of losing ships and not buying replacements.

From 1981 it was no longer just a matter of passenger-cargo ships as container ships were already taking a large chunk of the liner business (and in this type William Lines and Sulpicio Lines joined the race against early pacesetter Aboitiz Shipping Corporation while Compania Maritima did not). So actually by 1983, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were running even less liners as some old and small ships were either laid up, sold or converted to just carrying cargo.

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MINTERBRO Port, the remains of Compania Maritima in Davao

In 1982, the MV Samar was broken up and in 1983 the MV Luzon was also broken up. Compania Maritima was already near extinction then. It was just the dying dance and after that it was already a battle between William Lines and Sulpicio Lines which is Number 1.

Shouldn’t We Be Downsizing Our Liners Now?

In the ten years after the end of World War II, the bulk of our liners were ex-”FS” ships with a sprinkling of former “F” ships, former “Y” ships and former small minesweepers of the US Navy which were even smaller ships. The first-mentioned ship was only 55 meters in length. Passenger capacity then of 200-300 were normal. The built capacity was not too high as our population was still small then with a little over 20 million people and besides, the country and the economy were just beginning to recover from the devastation of the Pacific War

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An ex-“FS” ship (Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

In the next decade after that, there came the lengthened former “FS” ships which are over 60 meters in length with three decks. Passenger capacities then rose a bit. The lengthening of ex-”FS” ships, which was still the dominant liner type then was a response to the growing capacity need because the population was beginning to increase and trade was also on the rise. In 1960, our population already rose to 27 million.

In this period, there were no other sources yet of new liners as the European market was not yet discovered except by Compania Maritima and practically there were no surplus ships yet from Japan. It is true that we then already had some big ships mainly in the form of ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships which were US surplus from the war and former European passenger-cargo ships in Compania Maritima’s fleet. These big liners (by Philippine standards) averaged some 100 meters in length.

1971 MV Samar

An ex-“C1’M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

In passenger capacity, however, those big liners then were not even double in passenger capacity compared to lengthened ex-”FS” ships. It was normal for them to have cargo holds in the bow and in the stern of the ship with the passenger accommodations in an “island” at the middle of the ship or amidship. Those big liners normally had only about 500 persons in passenger capacity.

Actually, when the European passenger-cargo ship Tekla came in 1965 to become the Don Arsenio of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co., she was then already tops in the Philippines in passenger capacity at about 700 persons. To think Go Thong has the tendency to maximize and pack it in and that ship was already 110 meters in length and one of the biggest in the country. [Well, liners of the 1990’s of that length already had more than double of that in passenger capacity.]

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Elcano by suro yan

In the middle of the 1960’s, big ships from Europe started to arrive for Go Thong and William Lines and also for Compania Maritima which had been buying ships from Europe right after the end of the war. These shipping companies had the long routes then which extended up to southern Mindanao which had many intermediate ports. Hence, big capacity matters to them. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Company) which also had routes to southern Mindanao was using ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships or if not they were using their luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano which were 87 meters in length (the two were sister ships).

It was the pattern that as the years went by the ships got bigger and its passenger capacities rose. That was a function of our country’s population increasing and hence also its trade because more population needs more commodities and goods. I am actually interested in the trivia which liner first had a 1,000 passenger capacity but right now I don’t have that data. Maybe that ship emerged sometime in the 1970’s.

In 1970, we already had a population of 37 million. And one change was Mindanao was already colonized, its population was growing fast and its new people had to connect to the rest of the country because this time most of the population of Mindanao were no longer native-born as in they were migrants from other parts of the country.

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Don Sulpicio  (Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library)

One benchmark in capacity was the Don Sulpicio which became the Sulpicio Lines flagship when she came in 1975. She had a passenger capacity of 1,424 (this could be the latter figure after refitting from a fire). But her sister ship Dona Ana has a bigger net tonnage and might had a bigger passenger capacity especially since her route was Davao while Don Sulpicio‘s route was only Cebu. The Don Sulpicio later became the infamous Dona Paz which supposedly loaded 4,000 plus passengers (guffaw!)

These two ships were only in the 90-meter class but one thing that changed with the arrival of the cruisers that were not formerly cargo or cargo-passengers ships is that they had full scantling already so the passenger accommodation stretches from the bridge to the stern of the ship. And one more, the liners became taller with more passenger decks and it is even up to bridge or navigation deck.

Of course, their spaces were not as big as the big 1990’s liners. Riding a 1970’s liner, one would find that all the spaces are “miniaturized” from the size of the bunks to the spaces between the bunks, the tables and the restaurants and the lounges. They were simply a different beast than their counterparts two decades later where spaces and amenities were really ample.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

In the early 1980’s, passenger capacities of over 1,000 was already commonplace with the biggest liners in the 110 and 120 meter class and with some featuring four passenger decks already. Actually as early as 1979 with the arrival of the sister ships Don Enrique and Don Eusebio which were southern Mindanao specialists, their capacities already touched 1,200 and yet they were only in the 110 meter class. The two were the latter Iloilo Princess and Dipolog Princess, respectively.

Actually, passenger maximization was already the game then as even 70-80 meter liners built in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, both cruisers and ROROs, already had capacities averaging 800 or so persons. These were the pocket liners in the 1980’s when the former smallest, the lengthened “FS” ships were already bowing out. In 1980, the country’s population already reached 48 million. With the development of the roads even the people of the interior were already traveling.

1980 Dona Virginia

Photo credits: Daily Express and Gorio Belen

On December of 1979, the first ship to reach 2,000 in passenger capacity arrived. This ship was the flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was also the longest liner then in the country with a length of 143 meters, the longest then in our ferry fleet. And to think the Dona Virginia was not even a tall ship.

In 1988, further bigger liners arrived in the country. The Cotabato Princess which was also a southern Mindanao liner also reached 2,000 in passenger capacity. Its sister ship Nasipit Princess also had the same capacity. Both were 149 meters in length. But the new champion was the very big Filipina Princess which had a passenger capacity of over 2,900. This great liner had a length of 180 meters.

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In the 1990’s, liners of 2,000-passenger capacity or a little less became commonplace. The liner with the biggest ever capacity that existed here was the Princess of the Orient with a passenger capacity of 3,900. It was the longest-ever ship that sailed here at 195 meters. Other ships of this era that had passenger capacities of over 3,000 were the Princess of the Universe and the Princess of Paradise. Both were over 165 meters in length. All the ships mentioned from Cotabato Princess up to Princess of Paradise were liners of Sulpicio Lines.

Even with these high capacities of 2,000 and over the liners were able to pack it in in the 1990’s. I was once a passenger of the Princess of the Paradise on a Christmas trip when all bunks were taken (maybe if there were vacancies it was in the cabins). I also had a same experience on a June trip aboard the Our Lady of Akita (the latter SuperFerry 6) and the crew had to lay mattresses in the hallways because the ship was overbooked. And that ship have a passenger capacity of over 2,600. [Maybe we were technically not “overloaded” as there might have been vacancies in the cabins.]

Princess of the Orient(SLI)FS

Princess of the Orient from Britz Salih

But things began to change in the new millennium. Maybe there was already a surplus of bottoms because there was a race then to acquire liners in the term of President Fidel V. Ramos as it was encouraged and supported. But budget airlines also came along with the intermodal buses. The demand for ship bunks began to slacken and the liners can no longer pack it in like before.

This trend was reflected in the liners fielded starting in 2000. Among the liners of the new millennium only SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 reached 2,000 in passenger capacity and just barely. And to think they are 174 meters in length. The new liners of Aboitiz Transport System already had two wagon decks instead of four passenger decks. But on a look-back the two wagon decks were also not fully loaded.

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Photo credit: port of douglas

The liner acquisitions of Sulpicio Lines in the new millennium both did not reach 2,000 passengers in capacity. Not even the very big Princess of the Stars, the Philippines’ biggest liner ever. So even Sulpicio Lines recognized that passenger demand was already declining. But unlike Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they did not convert liners to have two cargo decks. Well, unlike ATS, Sulpicio Lines have many container ships to carry the container vans.

After 2005, only Aboitiz Transport System, Negros Navigation and latter 2GO still acquired liners (excepting Romblon Shipping Lines). None had a passenger capacity that reached 2,000. Some even had passenger capacities of less than 1,000. Most had two wagon decks that does not get full.

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SuperFerry 21 by Nowell Alcancia

If liners can no longer get full in passengers and in container vans then what is the use of acquiring liners of 150 meters length and with over 20,000 horsepower? It is useless. Liners should have lower horsepower now because fuel is the number one expense in shipping. There is also no use now running them at 19 or 20 knots. The overnight ferries have shown the way. Even though their ships are capable of higher speeds they just use economical speed now. No more racing.

Actually, the new overnight ships like what Cokaliong Shipping Lines is acquiring could be the new liners. These average 80 meters in length. Or maybe ships a little bigger than those could be acquired. And that will be like the former Cebu Ferries that were pulled out from the Visayas-Mindanao routes. Their length averages 95 meters. The engine power of all of these are all not topping 9,000 horsepower and yet they are capable of 17-18 knots if needed and that was the range then of many liners in the 1990’s.

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Our Lady of Lourdes by Ray Smith

I think the new size paradigm of the liners should just be about 100 meters maximum with a horsepower of 10,000 or less and a speed of no more than 18 meters. That will be like the smaller liners of the late 1980’s like the Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which were 101 meters in length and had 8,200hp. The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines in that era was 98 meters in length had engines of 8,000hp total. Yet, all three were capable of 17 knots here.

Maybe another and probably better paradigm were the former Our Lady of Medjugorje and the Our Lady of Sacred Heart also of CAGLI. Both were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan but were beautifully refitted here. Both were 123 meters in length but only had 9,000 and 8,000 horsepower, single-engined. The passenger capacity of the two even averaged over 1,500 passengers. They might not be too speedy at about 16 knots but we have to be practical and have to scale back. In amenities and space, the two were good. The former SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation is also a good model. At 118 meters, 9,300 horsepower, 16 knots she was a credible liner then with a passenger capacity of 2,000 . All the quoted speed were when they were already running here when they had additional metal and the engines were no longer new

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Our Lady of Medjugorje from Britz Salih

But technology has improved and for the same engine horsepower a ship can be faster. Take for example the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated. At only 9,000 horsepower and 110 meters in length, she is still capable of 18 knots here.

If liners are smaller with smaller engines then maybe weaker routes abandoned might be viable again. I think Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO had to scale back on routes because their liners and its engines were too big for the weaker routes. They tried to shoehorn a 150-meter liner in the like of Tagbilaran. No liner of that size did a Tagbilaran route before. Like even at the peak of passenger shipping no shipping company sent a liner of that size to Roxas City.

But government also has to help. Maybe, one possible step maybe is to limit the number of container ships. There might be too many of them sailing already. It is growing at a rate much ahead of our trade and production growth. So it simply diminishes the capability of a liner to be viable.

In the past before 1978, our cargo is being carried by the passenger-cargo ships. That was the reason why there was so many liners then as in over 60 in total and even 90 in the 1960’s when ships were smaller and ex-”FS” ships still dominated. What happened next is while our inter-island container fleet is growing, our liner fleet was also growing smaller because cargo is also being carried by the container ships.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

On the same route there is no way a liner can carry cargo cheaper than container ships. For the same length the container ships have much less smaller engines, the acquisition cost is much less, insurance is smaller and crewing is much smaller too and there is less regulation. Of course, they are slow. But let upon liners in competition they can practically sink the liners. I heavily doubt if our government functionaries understand this relationship and history.

It might be anti-competitive but if the government does not intervene I think our liner sector will sink and be wiped out. One possible intervention even is to decree that vehicles can only be carried by the liners. This will be added revenue for the liners. Or that liners should have fuel that is cheaper. Of course some will balk at that and suspicions of fuel diversion will always be aired. But good controls can be put in place. Unless we as a people is really that corrupt and bribable.

As it is, 2GO is profitable now when the world market prices of oil plummeted. But then one thing that worries me is their fares on the average are not lower than the budget airlines and the intermodal buses. With longer time of travel they cannot compete with budget airlines in the long run. And with frequencies that are not daily the passengers will not really wait for them.

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Maybe we should go back to this size

If the government wants the liner sector to stay it cannot just be verbal encouragement. Press or praise releases and promises are also next to nothing. There should be concrete steps and a program if they really want to save this sector. But is there anybody in government high enough that really understands this sector?

The government can put out all the verbal encouragement for other entities to enter this sector but I don’t think those who know shipping will enter this segment as things stand now. Downsizing is maybe one step that can arrest the downslide of passenger liner shipping.

The Times of Trouble for Philippine Liner Shipping in the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The former MV Katipunan (Photo credit: Edison Sy)

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

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

1978 1207 William Lines

Photo credits: Phil. Daily Express and Gorio Belen

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

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

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

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

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