The Misfortune of the Surigao Liner Route

Of all the many ports of Northern Mindanao, the geographical area and not the political-administrative region, it is Surigao that I did not see losing its liner connection to Manila given its history and not its demographic and economic profile. In the old days, Surigao had six passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling and dropping anchor every week whereas the likes of more known and bigger Iligan and Zamboanga did not have that frequency. So for me the loss of Manila connection by Surigao is almost unbelievable when the likes of Nasipit, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Ozamis still have their liner connection to Manila.

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Surigao Port by Aris Refugio

After the war, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Escano Lines, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), General Shipping Company (GSC), the great Compania Maritima (CM) provided Surigao with connection to Manila. Before the war, Surigao had ferry connection even in early American times and so the loss of connection was as shocking to me as the loss of Davao of its liner connection to Manila. I mean, the connections are historical and it was an epoch in local shipping.

In 1954, when the country has basically recovered from the war and there were enough ships already, the Romblon and Basilan of Compania Maritima and the Davao and Vizcaya of Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) sailed to Surigao. These were augmented by the Fernando Escano of Escano Lines and the General Mojica of General Shipping Company. All of these passenger-cargo ships were former war-surplus “FS” ships used by the US Army in their Pacific campaign during the war. Ex-“FS” ships were the backbone of our passenger shipping fleet in the early Republic years.

In 1955 the Occidental of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company and the Don Manuel of Royal Lines appeared in Surigao. Surigao then was usually paired with Butuan port (the true Butuan and not Nasipit) in voyages to increase the passenger and cargo volume. Combining the two ports was not difficult since the distance of the two is not far and just in the same direction and the additional passengers and cargo is much more than the additional fuel that is consumed.

The routes combined with Surigao got more complex over the years. In some routes Surigao is combined with Masbate, the Samar ports and Tacloban. There was even a ship, the Vizcaya of PSNC that had the route Manila-Romblon-Cebu-Maasin-Cabalian-Surigao-Bislig-Mati-Davao (now how’s that for complexity?). If ever there is again a liner with such route again it will be offer good, free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes one week as long as the accommodations, passenger service and food are good. By the way that was the time when a dozen passenger ships depart North Harbor every day on the way south. Who said smaller ships of the past were not good? With smaller ships comes more voyages and more voyages means more choices. Smaller ships also mean shorter legs and so it has to call on more ports. More ports means more free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes long. If one wants shorter travel time there is always the airline.

Some other routes to Surigao pass thru Cebu and/or ports on the western and southern side of Leyte island like Ormoc and Maasin. When I see the Palawan Princess or the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I tend to think they were the remnants of this route when they call in Masbate, Calubian, Baybay, Maasin and Surigao from Manila (and it even extended to Butuan earlier). It was just too bad that the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 put an end to that long route.

Until 1959 there were six ships from Manila sailing to Surigao and these were the FS-167, Fernando Escano, General Segundo, General Roxas, Rizal and Romblon. All were ex-FS ships except for the Rizal which might have been a lengthened “F” ship. In 1964, Escano Lines increased its ship call to Surigao with the Tacloban and Kolambugan. Later when Sweet Lines became a national liner company they also called in Surigao with their Sweet Peace. Then in 1970 when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded a dedicated ship to their origin, the West Leyte, this ship held a Manila-Romblon-Palompon-Ormoc-Baybay-Cabalian-Surigao-Sogod route. What a way to blanket western Leyte and Surigao! Later this route was taken over by their more modern ship Cagayan de Oro.

In the same year, Go Thong had their Dona Gloria and Gothong  (their flagship) do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Mati-Davao-Iloilo-Manila route which goes round Mindanao island. The two alternating ships of Go Thong were no longer ex-“FS” ships but were refitted former cargo-passenger ships with refrigeration from Europe which had air-conditioning already. When I think of the ship routes of the past, I see they were much more exciting that the dry, short routes of today where free tourism (touring the city while the ship is docked) is almost minimal.

When Sweet Lines instituted their eastern Mindanao shortcutter route to Davao via Surigao their ships like the alternating Sweet Bliss and Sweet Dream were also former refrigerated cargo ships from Europe. Later, it was the Sweet Love and Sweet Lord which were alternating in this route. These ships were almost like in size as the Type “C1-M-AV1” war-surplus big ships used right after World War II but the difference is they were faster and had refrigeration which afforded air-conditioned first class accommodations and lounges to be built and hence were more comfortable than the big war-surplus ships that were converted to passenger-cargo use.

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Verano Port of Surigao City by Mike Baylon

With ships getting bigger, it is not surprising that routes and frequencies went down. If some thought that getting bigger is all a plus (like maybe in safety) then there is also a downside to that (and there might be a lesson there too). The ships getting bigger were probably the first that affected the frequency to Surigao. The factor came next maybe after that was the appearance of the fast cruiser liners in the second half of the 1970’s. Fast cruiser liners usually have just one intermediate call so that it can maintain a weekly voyage to a route as far as Southern Mindanao like Davao. With their appearance, other companies tried to speed up their voyages by also cutting down on intermediate calls and I think Surigao got affected by that like when Sweet Lines dropped Surigao on their eastern Mindanao seaboard shortcutter route.

In 1979, when container services was just starting, the frequency to Surigao was down to 3 ships a week with two of that provided by Escano Lines with their Kolambugan and Surigao. The Don Manuel of Sulpicio Lines was the other ship to Surigao. The three were old ships, as in ex-”FS” type and the other probably a lengthened ex-“F” ship. I am not that sure of the reason for the drop except that I know ships on the way to Davao by the eastern seaboard no longer calls in Surigao port. I was thinking of the cargo. Were there a lot of logs, lumber and plywood loaded before? During that time the logging and timber industry was already on the way down. And the Catbalogan and Tacloban ships no longer go to Surigao. Not enough load maybe to extend the route there. Anyway, this time even the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes are already being threatened by the emerging intermodal system when the buses and trucks started rolling up to Leyte from Luzon.

The end due to old age of the ex-”FS “ships definitely affected Surigao. Those type served the smaller ports and weaker routes in the 1970s. With just 1,000-horsepower engines they were certainly thrifty to run and their size fits the weaker and smaller ports especially with their shallow drafts. However, they can’t last forever and entering the 1980’s it was obvious they were already in their last legs as they were already in their fourth decade. By the middle of that decade only a few of those type were still running reliably and they were kept running by just cannibalizing parts from other similar ships, one of the reasons why their number kept steadily falling.

Sulpicio Lines fielded the small but comfortable liner Surigao Princess in the route in 1983 which I said seemed to be a relic of earlier days. The Surigao Princess had air-conditioning and First Class accommodations including Suite. Aboitiz Shipping also resuscitated their complex route with their cruiser liner Legaspi which also had air-conditioning. This ship was acquired from Escano Lines, as the former Katipunan and different from their old Legazpi and sometimes she sports the name Legaspi 1 to differentiate it as the old Legazpi was still sailing. Maybe the ex-”FS” ships were now too old and slow to maintain such route. I am talking here of the late 1980’s. Escano Lines, the old faithful in the route and a “home team” of the area was already fading and what they had left were cargo ships and the Virgen de la Paz maintained their Surigao route for them. However, before Escano Lines was completely gone, Madrigal Shipping entered the Surigao route with their Madrigal Surigao, a comfortable and modern cruiser liner in an era when RORO liners were already beginning to dominate but then Madrigal Shipping lasted only a few years before quitting and selling their ships.

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Port of Surigao (from a framed PPA photo)

I do not know if the regional ships also contributed to the decline of the Surigao liner route. They got better so much so that connecting to Cebu where great RORO liners were beginning to mushroom is already easy. One only has to check their schedules in Cebu and it is really nice to ride them and with their size they won’t be coming to Surigao and so connecting to Cebu might have become attractive so one can ride those great RORO liners. I am talking from experience but from a different city which is Iligan when it became an option to me to connect to Cebu to be able to ride a great liner. I also did that on the way home because I know that if I arrive before dark in Cebu there will be seamless connecting rides to Iligan and/or Cagayan de Oro.

There was a big change in 1993 when the great Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines upon being shunted to Davao called in Surigao. Aboitiz Shipping also for a time tried the Surigao route with their SuperFerry 2. In 1994, William Lines entered Surigao for the very first time with their luxury liner Mabuhay 2. So for the first time the competitors in Surigao were all new and good liners, a development I have not ever seen before. Maybe the deregulation and support extended by the Ramos government was the reason when there was optimism and dynamism in shipping again. But let it be noted that the Surigao Princess which is beginning to be unreliable and the Palawan Princess were still alternating in their complex route to Surigao and so there were 4 voyages a week to Surigao then from Manila.

In 1996, the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A, the former Our Lady of Akita tried to challenge the Filipina Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route. SuperFerry 2 also did a Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Tagbilaran route after the merger. When WG&A started pairing ships in a route one pair that did the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Surigao-Manila route was the SuperFerry 3 and Our Lady of Medjugorje pair. When SuperFerry 6 was withdrawn from the eastern seaboard route and WG&A stopped that route and SF6 was paired with SuperFerry 10, the SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8 was paired to do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Nasipit route and that was really a fast combination as both ships can do 20 knots. Later, when three-ship pairing was used by WG&A, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 sailed the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit, v.v. route.

I always thought WG&A will maintain a twice a week schedule to Surigao and pair it with Nasipit and Sulpicio Lines will always have two schedules a week with its unchanging routes and schedules. But of course with the sales of ships that transformed WG&A into Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) there will be uncertainties and the greatest change was when ats sold four of their newest liners to take advantage of good prices and earn a handsome profit. Coming at the heels of sales of older liners and container ships to pay off their former partners which withdrew from the merger, ATS suddenly lacked ships and the Surigao schedules became infirm.

But the greatest blow was when Sulpicio Lines was suspended after the capsizing of their Princess of the Stars in 2008. Suddenly, their two schedules to Surigao were cut and those never came back. I thought ATS would be reliable but actually except for the return of SuperFerry 19 from Papua New Guinea, ATS found themselves lacking ships especially since their SuperFerry 14 was lost to firebombing off Bataan in 2004. When they acquired their SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, I thought that somehow their routes might stabilize. But like their withdrawal from Davao and General Santos City, I did not see that they will be doing just a Manila-Tagbilaran-Nasipit route and leave Surigao. This was the period when they had the system to use the buses i.e. give the passengers bus tickets to connect to their ships like what they did in southern Mindanao (so passengers can ride their liners in Cagayan de Oro). For Surigao, howeverm it seems they were offering their other makeshift system, the use of connecting ships to Cebu by using their Cebu Ferries. Neat but for whom?

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SuperFerry 19 arriving in Surigao Port by Michael Denne

But then their subsidiary Cebu Ferries suddenly left to become the “Batangas Ferries”. What I saw was the ATS world collapsing and not out of financial trouble. They were just no longer that interested in shipping and they admitted as much. The passion was gone and they were already more interested in power generation. Well, their bet and support of Gloria Arroyo paid off handsomely and they were able to earn in Tiwi Geothermal and Mak-Ban in Laguna what they cannot possibly ever earn in shipping.

They sold their shipping to an entity that was less capable than them and which had to get a big loan for the acquisition and was a big burden, so heavy that initially the new company was on the red for the next three years until fuel prices eased and they were back in the black. But that was not any benefit to Surigao as they never came back there for long except for a short period like when St. Joseph The Worker was refurbished and was assigned there and which I was lucky to ride. But after her sale and her sister it was downhill all the way for Surigao. With bean counters ruling, smaller ports had no chance in 2GO, the entity after ATS. And to think there were no longer any other liner company competing. 2GO was just content on routes that will easily make them money. Did they call that “serving the public”? I am not sure.

Now Surigao no longer has a liner, not even one that is paired with Nasipit. But 2GO still call in Nasipit from Cebu and so the extra distance pays. But maybe not when paired with Surigao? Maybe if the hours and the fuel of the ship are measured the metric of Surigao is too low and the 2GO ship is better used elsewhere. That is the quintessential bean counter method. They are not into traditional shipping. They are into business.

I was also wondering about the off and on service of the company to Dapitan until its total withdrawal. Dapitan and nearby Dipolog a combined population of over 200,000. But its commercial level is low and so maybe a population of 200,000 is not enough to sustain a liner per 2GO standard. And so maybe Surigao City with just 150,000 people has no chance even if some incrementals from Siargao tourism is added. In Ormoc with over a population over 150,000, 2GO was not able to maintain a route. Somehow these metrics points to the standards and parameters of 2GO.

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Surigao Port by Lota Hilton

If that is correct then maybe Surigao has no chance really unless a new liner company with true shipping emerges. But then with the situation of the liner industry that is like asking for the moon. I don’t know if the change at the helm of 2GO with the entry of Chelsea Shipping and the SM Group if the metrics and priorities will change. If ATS and 2GO said they were “passionate” in shipping (of course their dictionary is not Webster), I don’t know what will be the adjective of the 2GO/NN-Chelsea-SM combine that will make it better.

I don’t want to be too hopeful and so I will just await developments.

Note: Thanks a lot to the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library.

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The Tacloban Princess

The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines, although on a more minor liner route is one ferry that impressed me a lot because she is the only ferry in the Philippines that is under 100 meters in length and yet she has a passenger capacity of over 2,000 persons (2,009 actually) which means dense yet clever packing. With only 8,000 horsepower from two main engines, her passenger capacity to horsepower ratio is tops in the land for liners which means a very high efficiency for me in carrying people. Maybe during the time she was fielded in her Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route the sailing was still good and since this route had never had good container van load, probably Sulpicio Lines just decided to pack it in in passengers. Maybe, too, the bite of the intermodal buses (and trucks) in Eastern Visayas were not yet that big and painful when she was fielded and Sulpicio Lines still had high hopes for the route because in the past the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route was a great route with many liner shipping companies competing including the biggest shipping companies in our seas then like Compania Maritima, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and many others which bowed out earlier. Probably, also, Sulpicio Lines which is in a one-upmanship game with its main rival William Lines do not want to suffer in comparison and heckling because some three years before William Lines fielded the first RORO liner in the route, the Masbate I (but not continuously at first) and this ship’s arrival was backgrounded by the infamous loss of their Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban liner which was the ill-fated Dona Paz and they do not want a ship inferior to the Masbate I. The Tacloban Princess was Sulpicio Lines’ direct replacement for that lost ship (because the company stopped sailing liners to Tacloban after the disaster and only used the container ship Sulpicio Container VII to carry cargo but not passenger; maybe the feared a backlash). Maybe Sulpicio Lines felt they needed an impressive ship for their comeback and so they fielded the Tacloban Princess, and it be named after Tacloban City for acceptance of the public. So when she was fielded she was the biggest and the best in the route and obviously Sulpicio Lines wanted to salvage lost pride and prestige. Such was the historical background of the coming of the Tacloban Princess.

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The Tacloban Princess by Daryl Yting

In design and lines, I see a large similarity between the Tacloban Princess and the Manila Princess, another ship of Sulpicio Lines although the latter ship is bigger and was not built by the same shipyard and came two years later than the Tacloban Princess. In Manila Princess, Sulpicio Lines did not try anymore to “fill up” that “vacant area” after the poop deck and so there was no scantling above the stern portion of Manila Princess and container vans and other cargo can be stowed directly in that portion using the stern boom of the ship. In the Tacloban Princess, that “vacant area” or “free area” was fully built-up as a big Economy section and that boosted the passenger capacity of the ship (aside from also constructing passenger accommodations from the bridge of the ship up to the funnels). It seems Sulpicio Lines took care to make that stern section as it was beautifully done and her stern looked more modern than the stern of Masbate I. Looking at the quarter-front of the two competing ships, one can see a lot of similarity they being of almost the same size and built at about the same period and that reflects in the design of the ship. But it seems Sulpicio Lines stress more in the aesthetics of the lines and the superstructure and so the Tacloban Princess looked more modern and better pleasing to the eye. Of course, she would never have the lines and aesthetics of later ships as the bridge and forecastle section of the ship is something that is hard to refit or remodel.

The Tacloban Princess started life as the Shinko Maru of the shipping company Nihon Kaiun KK. She was built by the Fukuoka Shipbuilding Company Limited (Fukuoka Zosen) in Fukuoka, Japan and completed in September of 1970 with the IMO Number 7106243. The ship’s length overall (LOA) was 98.3 meters and her breadth or beam was 19.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 2,664 tons. Her original load capacity in deadweight tons (DWT) as Shinko Maru was 1,266 tons. In Japan the ferry only had two passenger decks and she had no scantlings beyond the funnels.

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The Shinko Maru from Wakanatsu

The ship was fitted with two small engines much like in the mold of the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated . Her twin engines developed only 8,000 horsepower (it seems these ROPAX ships of about 100 meters in length only has about 8,000 horsepower) but her original sustained top speed was decent at 18.5 knots which was the same as the Gothong sister ships. Here with the added metal and additional age the most that can be coaxed out of her two Niigata engines was only 17 knots but that was already good enough for her size, her route and the general expectation of her shipping era. Actually when she was fielded in the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route she became the fastest liner there and equal to the fastest that sailed there before, the Tacloban City of William Lines.

The Shinko Maru came to the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 1990 and she was refitted in Cebu. Another deck was added at the bridge level and after the funnels two and a half passenger decks were added. Since the funnels were near midship, in totality in area of the passenger accommodations of the ferry more than doubled. That system of refitting and the increase in passenger accommodations were the norm of the era much to dramatically increase the passenger accommodations but to the consternation of the Japanese builders and designers but as a general rule they don’t sink or capsize (contrary to what old ship haters with vested interests say now). But the depth and the draft has to increase to maintain stability. Speed however suffers because of the additional steel and the greater draft.

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The Tacloban Princess (edited) by Chief Ray Smith

The maiden voyage of Tacloban Princess was on August 5, 1990 (and with her forthcoming fielding William Lines withdrew their aging and slower already cruiser ship Tacloban City and replaced her permanently with the RORO liner Masbate I. She leaves on Wednesdays at 12 noon for Catbalogan and arrives there 22 hours later and she will depart for Tacloban at Thursdays 1pm and will arrive there at 5pm (which is a little late already for those still needing connecting trips). Departure back to Manila will be Fridays at 12nn and arriving in Catbalogan 4 hours later. The ship will then depart at 6pm and arrives in Manila on Saturdays at 5pm (well, it seems she is fond of late arrivals). The second round-trip voyage of Tacloban Princess within the same week will be a direct one to Tacloban leaving on Sundays at 10am and arriving in Tacloban on Mondays at 1pm. She will then depart Tacloban Monday 4pm (it seems there is really not much cargo if she can leave after only 3 hours in port) and arrive in Manila Tuesdays at 4pm. The Tacloban Princess like her competitor Masbate I was a popular commute to Manila in the early 1990’s when the buses and short-distance ferries were not yet many. Her appeal lies in the free meals and the bunks where one can rest fully. Besides her travel time to Manila is equal that to the bus (if from Tacloban) while being more comfortable and with more amenities than the bus. However, she only had two trips in a week (but then Masbate I also has two trips a week). But then the Cebu Princess, also of Sulpicio Lines still had a Manila-Masbate-Calbayog-Catbalogan-Ormoc-Cebu route then and the Sweet Sail of Sweet Lines also had a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route then. Beside Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. also tried a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route (yes, that was how strong this route was then before it was eaten alive by the intermodal system). And so practically nearly everyday there was a ship to Manila and so the appeal of the daily departures of the bus was not that great yet then (I wonder if these competitors realized it then that they were actually “frenemies” but that term did not yet exist then).

In due time, however, the buses and the trucks increased in numbers, they became more ubiquitous with more routes (it was not up to Tacloban mainly anymore but to almost all points of Leyte and Samar islands) and more powerful units (both buses and trucks and the latter segment already had wing van trucks which were built for ease loading and direct delivery). And one strength of the many colorum buses is they know how to search for passengers (they don’t just wait for them to pop up in the terminals). They had the advantage of multiple daily departures and the capacity to pick up or drop by the gates of the houses of the passengers. Plus for those just going to CALABARZON the advantage of taking the bus over the ship is much greater (as in they need not backtrack from Manila anymore). Besides going to or coming out of North Harbor increasingly became more difficult for the passengers compared to the Pasay or Cubao terminals and the Alabang and Turbina pick-up of the buses. I remember then that the buses coming from Eastern Visayas would stop by the eateries before the ascent to Tatlong Eme. There for two pesos one can take a bath from a very strong spring water piped in straight from the mountain and it is so strong one will feel as if he is drowning (but then rinsing takes a very short time only and so the bus need not wait long). Passengers then will arrive in Manila still feeling fresh. Like the ships the Eastern Visayas buses will take in any volume of passenger cargo and will even allot the seats for it for a fee. Passengers will willingly pay for it because getting it to the pier or out will cost money from porters who demands high porterage fees (or from taxi drivers that will demand “special rates”).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Before the end of the millennium, however, shipping in Eastern Visayas has already showed signs of distress. The buses and the trucks got more experienced and more organized and additional ferries arrived in the San Bernardino Strait crossing and so more schedules were available. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines quit the route and so there were less ships going to Manila. Even before this happened in the Catbalogan/Tacloban route the liners from Manila has already been driven away from Northern Samar and next the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines has to drop the Calbayog call on the way to Ormoc from Masbate and to think Sulpicio Lines has the reputation of being very gritty in terms of abandoning ports of call. The intermodal buses and trucks were already eating the business of the liners even before the last millennium ended.

At the start of the new millennium the Tacloban Princess was forced to drop the Catbalogan port of call and just make two direct Tacloban voyages in a week. She would leave Manila on Wednesdays at 9am and arrive in Tacloban Fridays at 3pm (which means she slowed down already). She would leave Tacloban on Fridays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Saturdays at 6pm. Her second voyage to Tacloban would leave on Saturdays at 12 midnight and arrive in Tacloban on Mondays at 6am. She will then forthwith leave Mondays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Tuesday at 6pm (I never liked these arrivals in Manila; these played right into the hands of the unscrupulous drivers and the holduppers). The Tacloban Princess was then only running at 13 knots and the buses were already faster than her (which normally don’t take more than 24 hours from Tacloban). That was a killer and the end of the line was already showing and only cargo was sustaining her now (plus the diehard ship passengers). But I was already wondering then if the revenues was still enough to sustain her operations but I heard the oldies of Sulpicio Lines are sentimental that they will never really give up on routes (or even of ships).

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The Tacloban Princess by Chief Ray Smith

During that time I was wondering if it is better for Sulpicio Lines to just transfer the Tacloban Princess on another route (and just leave the Cebu Princess and the Palawan Princess on the eastern seaboard routes). I thought Sulpicio Lines was a little wasteful on ships in that part of the country when the handwriting on the wall was already very obvious – that the end I nearing. I thought they could have replicated what Gothong Lines and William Lines did then and combined the Ozamis and Iligan routes (that meant the Cebu Princess will take the Masbate and Tacloban plus the Ormoc routes). Of course if she is transferred she will be up against superior ships of WG&A which with the disposal of their 16-knot ships has none sailing at less than 17.5 knots (but then the Dipolog Princess serving Iligan was also inferior during that time already). But then I know that move could send the Dipolog Princess to the breakers (but by then the comparative Iloilo Princess was lost by fire and she could have taken in its Puerto Princesa route). But then why not swap her with the bigger and faster Princess of the Ocean which was just being used in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route? I thought her lack of speed could be hidden there like the Our Lady of Good Voyage. She will be competing with that ship and she is near-parity in size, speed and accommodations. But then Sulpicio Lines was just using the probably more than equal Princess of the Earth in the Cebu-Nasipit route where the big but unreliable Nasipit Princess stayed for long. Sometimes I can’t get the logic of the fielding of ships of Sulpicio Lines. They could have swapped Tacloban Princess for Princess of the Earth and the latter could have been sent to the Palawan routes and she would have been more competitive there to the Aboitiz Transport System (the successor company of WG&A) ferries.

I also thought she could have been swapped with the faster Princess of Carribbean since the Tacloban route does not have much cargo (and the cargo capacity of the Princess of the Caribbean is limited being a cruiser ship). She could then make a three times a week voyage to Tacloban and a modus vivendi could be sought with Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to also field a fast cruiser (like if they did not sell the Our Lady of Naju) so a six times a week sailing to Leyte could be made (the point of departure could also be Ormoc and the route will be shorter and shuttles could be employed to bring the passengers to and from Tacloban and Maasin; and container vans will be hauled too). But I knew even then such idea is too farfetched as ATS was simply too proud and blind and will rather give up an area as big as a region rather then fight the intermodal buses and trucks (and it is just easier to blame everything to the budget airlies but that palusot will not fly in Eastern Visayas as everybody knows the passengers went to buses and not to the airlines).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Later on, the Tacloban Princess had bouts of unreliability, I heard, and sometimes she can’t be seen and the Cebu Princess will make a Manila-Masbate-Tacloban route with a diversion to Cebu. Sometimes it will be the Tacloban Princess making that route and Cebu Princess will be out (it seemed then it was only the ancient Palawan Princess which was always ready to sail the eastern seaboard routes). That time Sulpicio Lines doesn’t advertise much in the papers like before and so monitoring was more difficult. Whatever it can be seen that Sulpicio Lines was making great effort to retain the Eastern Visayas ports of call (and Masbate too) against the relentless onslaught of the intermodal buses and trucks (and almost alone). I heard also then that after a long furlough Tacloban Princess’ engines were being rehabilated. Sulpicio Lines does not easily give up on ships. Well, if they can retain the Palawan Princess and the Dipolog Princess that came in the 1970’s and were obsolete cruisers then why not the better Tacloban Princess? Their antiquated Palawan Princess, to think, was still doing a Leyte route when that ship was built in the 1950’s and was the only liner left without airconditioning.

But one incident and factor dashed all the hopes for the Tacloban Princess. Of course, Sulpicio Lines did not expect another incident on the scale of the Dona Paz tragedy will happen and this time it will doom the entire passenger shipping of the company. Their flagship Princess of the Stars sank in a storm in 2008 and in the aftermath of the reactions Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger shipping and in order to get back, stringent conditions were demanded by MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) from the company. In the early days of the suspension (which was killing to the mechanical viability of the ships), Sulpicio Lines decided to sell ships to raise cash and among the victims were the Tacloban Princess along with the highly-regarded Princess of Paradise and Cotabato Princess (and in this sense, the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess were luckier as they went to Roble Shipping and not to the breakers).

The Tacloban Princess was bought by a Tayud shipyard in Cebu for breaking as we heard. World metal prices was still high then and no shipping company was shopping for a liner as the liner industry was obviously on the way down already because of the growing shares of the budget airlines, the forwarding companies and the intermodal trucks and buses. However, while in the shipyard the Tacloban Princess caught fire and was reduced to charred metal. The incident just made her chopping faster.

And so in 2009 Tacloban Princess was already dead, killed by the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars. Maybe if she was just the size of an overnight ship she might have survived like the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess.

Selling under pressure just kills ships.

The Princess of the Ocean

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

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

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

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

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Emerald Okinawa by Funekichimurase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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