The Legacy of the Surplus Ships From Europe

After World War II, the passenger shipping companies in the Philippines started almost from scratch as the ships they had before the war were almost all lost by scuttling or through war actions (mainly by aircraft bombing and through gunfire). Like before the war, not all passenger shipping companies were created equal. Some of the old shipping companies had a faster start because war surplus ships were given to them as reparations for the lost commandeered ships (pressed into service for the Allied war effort). The most prominent among those are the vessels of shipping companies Compania Maritima, De la Rama Steamship, Manila Steamship, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (a postwar merger of the Everett Steamship of the US and Aboitiz Shipping), Madrigal Shipping and Escano Lines, all established and politically well-connected shipping companies. The owner of Compania Maritima was a Senator of the Republic, the General Manager of De la Rama Steamship was a son of the former President and the founder was a former Senator, the owner of Manila Steamship was a funder of presidential campaigns, Everett Steamship was an American company which were always supported by the State Department of the USA, the owner of Madrigal Shipping was a Senator of the Republic and it was only Escano Lines which might not be on the level of the six others in terms of political connections but their history anteceded Aboitiz Shipping and was Aboitiz Shipping’s partner before the war in the shipping company La Naviera.

But some other shipping companies which were not established shipping companies before the war had enough money and political connections to be able to also get war surplus ships given to the Philippine Government by the US Government as an aid in jumpstarting the economy. Among these were General Shipping Company (which was owned by several elite families who were funders of national campaigns and were aides of the top politicians), Southern Lines Inc. (owned by the gentility of Western Visayas and the President then was from that region), William Lines Inc. (owned by a powerful and influential Congressman) and Bisaya Land Transport (owned by a Senator of the Republic). That was the secret then of establishing a shipping company fast. One must be a heavyweight in his own right and one must be full of clout to be able to get preferential treatment from the government. And since Chinoys were not in this mold then they were left out in this race except for one (that is William Chiongbian of William Lines). The ability to get US war surplus ships generally determined the pecking order of the shipping companies in the first years after the war, the so-called “Liberation Time”.

Lanao

An example of an ex-“FS” ship. Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Some other companies might not have been so fortunate in acquiring surplus ships and so in order to grow, they had to be good in finding war surplus discards and buying the ships of the shipping companies that were weak and on the verge of quitting. The most prominent examples of these were the growth of Carlos A. Gothong & Company and Sweet Lines Inc. which both started with regional shipping operations and became national liner shipping companies by buying the routes and ships of national shipping companies that quit (Pan-Oriental Shipping for Gothong and half of General Shipping Company for Sweet Lines). Moreover, some shipping companies also lengthened former “F” ships so it will be on the same size as the former “FS” ships. Carlos A. Gothong & Company was good in this regard. Their first flagship when they became a national liner company, the Dona Conchita was actually a lengthened “F” ship.

Dona Conchita

An example of a lengthened “F” ship. Research by Gorio Belen in the Nationa; Library.

The war surplus ships then were preponderantly ex-“FS” ships which were formerly freight and supply ships by the US Army in the Pacific theater of war. There were also some of the bigger “C1-M-AV1” type and similar types like the Type “N” ships which were bigger cargo ships of the US Navy in World War II and used in the ship convoys transporting war material and supplies in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Along with them were the former “Y” ships which were former tankers and related to the “FS” ship in design and the small “F” type, many of which were lengthened and were almost as numerous as the ex-”FS” ships plus an assortment of former minesweepers and PT boats (but note the US also burned a lot of PT boats off Samar thinking they were useless with its gas-guzzling engines).

Mindanao

An example of a former “C1-M-AV1” ship. Research of Gorio Belen in the Nat’l Library.

Initially, aside from US surplus ships, a few big and wealthy shipping companies also sourced ships from Europe after the war (there were plenty of cheap ships then there that were released from war convoy duty). Among the local shipping companies, three stood out for having the capability to acquire ships from Europe after the war. These were the Compania Maritima, the Manila Steamship (or Elizalde y Compania) and Madrigal Shipping which were in the top tier of shipping companies before the war. All of the three were owned by top-ranking industrialists with plenty of high political connections and all the way to Malacanang. Moreover, they all already had the experience of acquiring ships from Europe even before the war. The owners of Compania Maritima, the biggest shipping company then in the country were even dual Philippine and Spanish citizens and they were able to buy a few good cargo-passenger ships from Europe which were just a few years old and almost new.

Meanwhile, the ship acquisitions from Europe of Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping consisted of really old ships and especially the latter. These were being disposed of because there was really an abundance of much better and newer war surplus ships then at ludicrously low prices (there was no longer a war after all). The three mentioned shipping companies used ships purchased from Europe to augment their fleet of war-surplus ships from the US.

And it then resulted in fleet augmentation alright, their aim. For Compania Maritima, it was enough to vault them to the very top which was their old position before the war. For Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping, that move brought them to the rank of majors, just like their position before the war, too. However, their fleet quality was not the same like before the war when they really had good ships in the main. That was the setback caused to them by the order to scuttle the ships in the war. The main replacement ships given by the US to them which were mainly ex-”FS” were nowhere as good as their prewar ships as the replacements were cargo ships in origins and not purpose-built liners (Madrigal Shipping also received ex-“Y” ships aside from ex-“FS” ships). These replacements were also smaller than the lost prewar ships and so they were simply shortchanged by the US . In the main, Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping were not given the big ex-“C1-M-AV1” ships which were mainly reserved for Everett Steamship, a US company operating in the country like a national and because of the so-called “Parity Rights”.

The other companies whose ships were also lost in the war like Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping also received just ex-“FS” ships as replacements for their good liners before the war. Meanwhile, the smaller shipping companies before the war like the regionals mainly received former “F” ships, former minesweepers and former PT boats as replacements for their lost ships in the war.

Meanwhile, the De la Rama Steamship which was also very well connected politically had a good fate, shall we say. The National Development Corporation (NDC) gave them three big brand-new ships on charter. Aside from that, two big ships of them before the war were also returned to them plus two big war-surplus “Type C1-B” ships were also given to them. Additionally, three ex-“FS” ships plus three ex-“F” ships were also handed to them. And that is aside from four ex-liners they also acquired from abroad. With this fast replacement of their lost fleet (and in size, they rivalled Compania Maritima, the old No. 1), I am wondering if this is somehow connected to former President Sergio Osmena Sr. not contesting seriously his election rivalry against the winner President Manuel Roxas.

Don Isidro

The Don Isidro of De la Rama Steamship lost in war action.

These war surplus ships plus a few surplus European ships were basically enough for our local shipping needs after the war and for the next 15 years and those were augmented by local builds which were mainly wooden-hulled motorboats (batel or lancha).

But one-and-a-half decades after the war, it was already apparent there was already a need to augment our passenger shipping fleet which then consisted almost entirely of war surplus ships from the US. There were ships lost at sea plus our economy has already grown including the population. The whole of Mindanao was finally conquered and ships were needed to connect it to the rest of the country especially southern Mindanao which needs a lot of ships to run a regular schedule. With the general growth of population and the rise of production, the passenger and cargo capacities of the small surplus ships from World War II were no longer enough even though the Philippine President Lines came in 1959 with the last war surplus ships released by the US Navy.

Galaxy

The most prominent ship released by the US to Philippine President Lines. Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

And so a lot of additional ships had to be acquired as lengthening of the former “FS” ships was no longer enough. And in the 1960s there were no longer war surplus ships available in the market. The last batch released by the US in 1959-61 already went to different owners including our own Philippine President Lines (PPL) which was a newly-established shipping company then.

In fleet augmentation which was already needed then, a good source has to be found. Japan was not yet a good source of surplus ships then because they still needed their ships for their postwar economic boom. If ships have to be sourced from them, it would have to be ordered brand-new. And the US was also not a good source either because their liners were simply too big. And so Europe was the only possible source (if the ships are surplus) especially Scandinavia which was shedding their older ships and France which has already lost its colonies in Africa.

There were shipping companies that tried augmenting their fleet by ordering brand-new ships locally, from Japan and West Germany using loan windows provided by the government. But from the middle 1960s to the early 1970s, the surplus ships from Europe were more numerous. And the biggest reasoning was that for a brand-new ship, two or three surplus ships can be acquired and thus the capacity and revenue are far greater. Although surplus, it was assumed they will last as long if it was still in good condition and Europe is known for quality.

Why were surplus ships favored by more shipping companies compared to the brand-new? Well, brand-new ships are more expensive to acquire and thus for one brand-new ship, two or three surplus ships can be acquired. If the ratio is one to one, the brand-new ship will take longer to amortize. Moreover, with the subsequent devaluation of the peso in 1962, more pesos were needed to pay off a loan taken to acquire a ship and that will hinder further acquisitions (and President Diosdado Macapagal made sure of that by devaluing the peso in 1962 upon the advice of the US). Surplus or brand-new, the carrying capacity and revenues of the ships are the same (that of the surplus ships from Europe might have more capacity as they were bigger than the ones ordered brand-new and with no less speed except for those ordered by Compania Maritima). Actually, those with surplus ships were the ones that are in a position to offer discounts or rebates which was decisive in cornering cargo. Supposedly, the discounting of rates was “illegal” but it was actually rampant (and were actually sidestepped by the shipping companies on the way up).

Aside from leading Compania Maritima which continuously sourced ships from Europe, five shipping companies joined the trend in purchasing second-hand ships from Europe for conversion here into passenger-cargo liners. These were  Gothong & Company (the old undivided company), Sweet Lines and William Lines, three Chinoy shipping companies working its way up the shipping totem pole plus the new and unknown Dacema Lines. Additionally, the old Madrigal Shipping Company also acquired a ship from Europe during this period. This will be the focus of this article. [However, may I note that Escano Lines did not acquire a surplus ship this period but they acquired three brand new ships, two from West Germany and one from Japan].

The surplus ships from Europe were significantly bigger and faster than the backbone then of Philippine passenger-cargo shipping, the former “FS” ships and the lengthened ex-“F” ships. These ships were generally from 80 to over 100 meters in length and they usually have speeds of 13 to 16 knots. In speed, these ships from Europe were a better fit for the Southern Mindanao routes and its bigger capacity afforded dockings in many in-ports along the way thus making the voyage more profitable.

Sweet Love

An example of a surplus European ship. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

Other advantages of these European surplus ships compared to the US war-surplus ships were also in comfort and accommodations because as former cargo-passenger ships in Europe they already have passenger accommodations and amenities right at the start and all that was needed in the main was to add Economy passenger accommodations. Also, many of them were already purpose-built liners right from the start and that means more comfort. Additionally, with the former refrigerated cargo ships, it was sure they already had refrigeration and air-conditioning from the start, the marks of a luxury ship hereabouts then.

Sweet Faith

A purpose-built liner from Europe. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

These ships began arriving in the Philippines from 1963 to the early 1970s when it stopped because we already had a new supplier of surplus ships which was Japan. In total, some 30 ships from Europe came to the Philippines during this period and that is about half of the total ex-“FS” ships we had then. But since these European ships are bigger in gross register tonnage (GRT) which is the measure of a ship’s size, the two types were just about even in capacity. Even if the other war surplus ship types are considered, still the local fleet capacity almost doubled since we also ordered brand-new ships from various sources during this period including from Europe. So that is how the surplus European ship expanded the capacity of our passenger-cargo fleet in the 1960s.

Visayas

An example of a brand-new passenger-cargo ship from Europe. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was the biggest buyer of surplus ships from Europe with a total of 10 ships but that does not even include some big cargo-passenger ships that they basically used on the ocean-going routes to the Far East and West Germany (but those have limited passenger accommodations). The new national liner company Sweet Lines acquired seven ships from Europe while the venerable Compania Maritima purchased six ships from Europe during this period. William Lines also purchased four ships from Europe (plus two brand-new ships from Japan) during. A new shipping company, the Dacema Lines also purchased two ships from Europe and the old Madrigal Shipping Company also purchased one.

The ex-Europe ships of Go Thong:

  • Gothong (a.k.a. Dona Pamela), built 1950 in Sweden, first known as Cap Gris Nez, acquired in 1963, 88.8m x 12.4m, 14 knots design speed. Once a flagship of Go Thong.
  • Don Arsenio (a.k.a. Tayabas Bay), built 1950 in Denmark, first known as Tekla, acquired in 1965, 110.0m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed.
  • Dona Helene (a.k.a. Don Alberto), built 1950 in France, first known as Atlas, acquired in 1967, 95.4m x 14.0m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Dona Rita, built 1949 in France, first known as Tafna, acquired in 1967, 95.3m x 14.0m, 15 knots design speed. Sister ship of Dona Helene.
  • Don Lorenzo (a.k.a. Dona Julieta), built 1951 in West Germany, first known as Liebenstein, acquired in 1968, 105.1m x 14.2m, 16 knots design speed.
  • Don Camilo, built 1951 in West Germany, first known as Lichtentein, acquired in 1968, 105.1m x 14.2m, 16 knots design speed. Sister ship of Don Lorenzo.
  • Dona Gloria, built 1947 in West Germany, first known as Colombia, acquired in 1969, 85.9m x 11.6m, 13 knots design speed.

Two of the ships from Europe contracted by Go Thong from its agents were actually not built in Europe but were ex-World War II US-built cargo ships that were in Europe  with the original names Cape St. George (which became Subic Bay) and Cape Arago (which became Manila Bay). The two were acquired in 1966 and these were Type “C-1A” ships with external measurements of 125.7m x 18.3m and a design speed of 14.5 knots. The two were used in transporting the Lu Do, Lu Ym coconut products to Europe and the Far East [and the two were assisted by the Sarangani Bay, an NDC-owned repossessed ship from De la Rama Steamship].

In 1972, an additional last ship for them also arrived from Europe, the Dona Angelina which was the former Touggourt which was built in France in 1950. This ship measured 91.4m x 14.0m with a design speed of 13.5 knots.

Among the liner companies then, it was Go Thong that relied the heaviest on ex-Europe ships which they fielded in their major routes especially in their Southern Mindanao routes which they then began to dominate.

The shipping company with the second-most ships from Europe during this period was the new national liner company Sweet Lines with seven. The company needed those to beef up their fleet as they were a new national liner company. One of these was ordered brand-new.

The Sweet Lines ships from Europe:

  • Sweet Bliss, built in 1953 in Denmark, first known as Broager, acquired in 1967, 92.5m x 13.3m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Sweet Grace, built 1968, acquired brand-new, 88.8m x 12.8m, 15 knots design speed. She became the flagship of the company.
  • Sweet Life (a.k.a. Sweet Dream), built in 1950 in Denmark, first known as Birkholm, acquired in 1969, 92.4m x 13.3m, 13 knots design speed. Sister ship of Sweet Bliss.
  • Sweet Faith, built in 1950 in Denmark, first known as P. Prior, acquired in 1970, 104.0m x 14.9m, 20 knots design speed. She was the fastest liner then when she was fielded.
  • Sweet Lord (a.k.a. Sweet Land), built in 1951 in Denmark, first known as Ficaria, acquired in 1972, 101.1m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed.
  • Sweet Love, built in 1952 in Denmark, first known as Primula, acquired in 1972, 101.0m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed. Sister ship of Sweet Lord.
  • Sweet Home, built in 1957 in Italy, first known as Caralis, acquired in 1973, 120.4m x 16.0m, 18 knots design speed.

Compania Maritima already acquired three ferries from Europe from 1949 to 1951. Those three were the best then in the fleet of the company and helped it secure the No. 1 place in the pecking order of liner companies after the war (except for a brief period when De la Rama Steamship challenged them). But the three will not be counted in this topic as they were not reinforcements from Europe in the 1960s when there were no longer war-surplus ships available in the second-hand market (aside from those later released by the US Navy starting in the late 1950s many of whom went to the newly-established Philippine President Lines).

The ships from Europe acquired by Compania Maritima from Europe in the 1960s (two of these were ordered brand-new):

  • Visayas, built in 1963 in West Germany, acquired brand-new, 117.0m x 16.4m, 16 knots design speed. This became the flagship of the company then.
  • Guimaras, built in 1957 in France, first known as Sidi-Aich, acquired in 1964, 98.6m x 14.9m, 16.5 knots design speed.
  • Filipinas, built 1968 in West Germany, acquired brand-new, 121.0 x 18.1m, 18 knots design speed. This became a flagship of the company and was the biggest and fastest liner when she was launched.
  • Isla Verde (a.k.a. Dadiangas) built in 1957 in France, first known as Kitala, acquired in 1969, 109.5m x 15.4m, 16 knots design speed.
  • Leyte Gulf, built in 1957 in France, first known as Foulaya, acquired in 1969, 113.4m x 15.5m, 17.5 knots design speed.
  • Mindanao, built in 1959 in West Germany, first known as Hornkoog, acquired in 1970, 134.6m x 16.1m, 18 knots design speed.

Aside from the six, Compania Maritima also acquired two former ocean-going ships (which were sister ships) from De la Rama Steamship in 1965 which were charted from the National Development Corporation (NDC). These were the Lingayen Gulf (the former Dona Alicia) and Sarangani Bay (the former Dona Aurora). They measured 153.7m x 19.7m with a design speed of 17 knots and built in Japan.

The ex-Europe ships of William Lines:

  • Virginia, built in 1943 in Sweden, first known as Fylgia, acquired in 1966, 102.9m x 13.6m, 14 knots design speed. She became the flagship of the company. She was also known as Virginia IV, Dona Virginia, Dumaguete City, Dumaguete and when she was converted into a container ship she was known as Wilcon VI.
  • William, built in 1948 in Sweden, first known as Ragunda, acquired in 1966, 103.3m x 13.6m, 14 knots design speed. She is the sister ship of Virginia. She was also known as Misamis Occidental, Misamis and Zamboanga City.
  • General Santos City, built in 1956 in Denmark, first known as Blenda, acquired in 1972, 89.4m x 13.0m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Tagbilaran City, built in 1956 in Denmark, first known as Bellona, acquired in 1972, 89.4m x 13.0m, 13 knots design speed. Sister ship of General Santos City. She was known as Wilcon IX when she was converted into a container ship.

Take note that William Lines also acquired two brand-new ships from Japan during this period.

The ex-Europe ships of Dacema Lines:

  1. Demeter, built 1950 in West Germany, first known as Falke, acquired in 1966, 82.8 m x 12.0m, 12 knots design speed.
  2. Athena, built 1950 in West Germany, first known as Adler, acquired in 1967, 82.8 m x 12.0m, 12 knots design speed. Athena and Demeter are sister ships.

The ex-Europe ship of Madrigal Shipping:

  1. Viria, built 1948 in Sweden, first known as Viria too, acquired in 1965, 52.4m x 8.7m, 12 knots design speed.

There were other ships sourced not from Europe but from the British Commonwealth during this period but I just decided to exclude them because they were just about four in number. Most of these belonged to the new shipping company KL Lines which soon gave up.

If one will check the schedules of passenger-cargo ships entering the 1970s, the ex-Europe ships were very dominant in Southern Mindanao while the ex-“FS” ships were sailing up to Northern Mindanao only with just some exceptions  (meanwhile, Negros Navigation which has the most brand-new ships in number was content in just protecting their Western Visayas turf). The new growth area then of Southern Mindanao was no longer for ex-“FS” ships with its lack of speed, capacity, amenities and vulnerability to typhoons (they have to seek shelter earlier and that ruins schedules). Former Southern Mindanao runners, the bigger war-surplus ex-“C1-M-AV1” and ex-“N” ships proved to be less rugged and were not even good for 25 years and so were already out of the equation before the 1970s got going. And so the additions from Europe became the key especially in growth area battles and when liners generally speeded up (the 10 knots sailing speed of the big and small war surplus ships was no longer enough).

Actually, the lack of the bigger and faster ex-European ships precluded other shipping companies from challenging in Southern Mindanao which happened to be the biggest growth area then of the country because of the big influx of settlers and the opening up for exploitation the natural resources of the island. Such their routes ended in Northern Mindanao only, if at all they reached Mindanao because there were shipping companies that sailed up to the Visayas only especially those which continued to rely on ex-“FS” and lengthened “F” ships only.

And so after a decade of ex-European ships coming (roughly in 1972, just before the breaking up of the old Go Thong into three whipping companies), the pecking order of the national liner companies changed. Compania Maritima was still on top but barely as their ship losses from accidents hit them hard. Go Thong which was not a national liner company before the war was already crowding them at the top if they haven’t surpassed Compania Maritima already. PSNC + Aboitiz which had integrated operations was still big with many ships but their fleet consisted mainly of war-surplus ships from the US and are already old although they were still trying to fight in the Southern Mindanao routes (but not up to Davao). The three might be the first tier then although Aboitiz Shipping which will soon absorb PSNC because of the ending of the “Parity Rights” is fast falling.

The second tier might consist of William Lines and Sweet Lines in near parity and just a little below the first tier. Note that Sweet Lines was not even a national liner company some seven years before but the surplus ships from Europe buoyed them up. They have already eclipsed Escano Lines and General Shipping, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and its successors Philippine Pioneer Lines and Galaxy Shipping) and Southern Lines were already gone from the inter-island routes. At this time De la Rama Shipping was just in ocean-going shipping and they acted as local agents for the foreign shipping companies whose ships are sailing here. Madrigal Shipping was already in its sunset and Manila Steamship was gone even before the European surplus ships came in force. Of course, Everett Steamship was also gone too because the “Parity Rights” which allowed them to sail here was already abrogated. Negros Navigation while healthy might just be in third tier all alone. And the fourth tier will consist of so-many small liner companies to Bicol, the Eastern Visayas and the current MIMAROPA now plus Northern Lines, Dacema Lines and KL Lines which all have routes up to Davao.

And so at the start of the 1970s, the biggest shipping companies were those which bet big in Southern Mindanao (especially General Santos City and Davao City) with their surplus European ships (the brand-new ships ordered from abroad were actually not present in Southern Mindanao except those of Compania Maritima). Some shipping companies had new ships but only a few in number and that was not enough as a route to Southern Mindanao to be maintained needs two ships alternating because roundtrip voyages need two weeks. Two ships are needed to maintain a weekly schedule and more if there are many voyages in a week to Southern Mindanao. And that is where the wisdom of buying two or three surplus ships from Europe versus a solo brand-new ship paid off.

Among the shipping companies that were not among the Top 4 (the first tier) in the mid-1960s (and that consisted of Compania Maritima, PSNC + Aboitiz Shipping, Go Thong and William Lines), it was only Sweet Lines and the combined Gothong Lines + Lorenzo Shipping (after 1972) that challenged in Southern Mindanao (the latter used a former brand-new ship acquired from Southern Lines and the other was the Dona Rita from Go Thong, their share in the partition of the old undivided company). Add to that the small Northern Lines, Dacema Lines and KL Lines which all did not last long.

The other shipping companies never entered Southern Mindanao like Escano Lines, Negros Navigation, Southern Lines, General Shipping, Philippine Pioneer Lines (the local successor of Philippine President Lines; and that includes successors Philippine Pioneer Lines and Galaxy Lines)  and Gothong Lines (when Lorenzo Lines split from them) as maybe the route was too taxing, their fleet size was not enough and they don’t have the proper ships. Aboitiz Shipping which was the successor to the Philippine Steam Navigation (PSNC) vessels was still a Southern Mindanao player in the 1970s but gradually they withdrew as they were already losing to the competition as they didn’t actually the proper ships anymore and their fleet was already growing old (what they soon rolled out were not passenger-cargo ships but container ships to Southern Mindanao).

But playing for Southern Mindanao was a critical factor then for the survival of the shipping companies as their business was already under pressure from many quarters and reasons from the 1970s (increased fuel prices, devaluation of the peso, competition from other modes of transport, local wars and other instabilities among others). It was still the area where people are still migrating in, there is still farmland to be opened (and grabbed from the natives) and land concessions were still being awarded to powerful and influential people. There was practically no road from Northern to Southern Mindanao and so the ships were still needed in the latter.

For those that did not play in Southern Mindanao and in Mindanao as a whole, the consequence was soon apparent when they were slowly defeated in the shipping competition and left in the wake or sank in the water. Shipping companies like General Shipping, Southern Lines and Philippine Pioneer Lines disappeared in the local shipping, some were weakened like Bisaya Land Transport and the other minor Eastern Visayas companies till they eventually died too, Gothong Lines practically just became a regional and the small liner companies eventually succumbed too. Some disappeared later from passenger shipping altogether like Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping became a ghost of its former self.

Who were the winners in these differing approaches, i.e., brand-new versus surplus ships?  It was actually those that stressed on buying second-hand ships from Europe especially Carlos A. Gothong & Co., William Lines and Sweet Lines if growth will be the basis of the comparison. In due time the three reached the rank of majors when two decades earlier they weren’t near that rank or were just regionals (and the other majors before them all sank except for Aboitiz Shipping which struck gold in container shipping). The surplus ships they purchased from Europe generally lasted 15-20 years (and some were even converted to container ships), just a little lower than the local brand-new ships) but more than enough to recoup their initial investment. However, although Compania Maritima also acquired surplus and brand-new ships from Europe, they also lost because they were bleeding ships from accidents and when Martial Law came they altogether stopped buying ships. The only exception was Negros Navigation which became stronger with brand-new ships and surplus from Japan plus they have a stranglehold in Negros Occidental.

And that was how important were the ex-European ships in our shipping history. They determined the pecking order in local shipping as soon as they arrived in numbers and they were a big factor in determining which will thrive and which will not survive.

 

When Eastern Visayas Ports And Shipping Were Still Great

Growing up I heard tales from my late father how great Tacloban port was. He told me about its importance, its physical dimensions, the location, the size of the bodegas outside it and even its relation to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I had the idea that Tacloban was the greatest port east of Cebu and my father told me that no port in the Bicol Region compares to Tacloban port and not even his beloved Legaspi port (that was the spelling of it then before it became “Legazpi”). He told me Tacloban port will not fade because the Romualdezes were in power in Leyte and everybody knows the relation of that clan to Ferdinand Marcos then (still a President, not yet a dictator). Ironically, my father was later proven wrong not because of politics but because of a paradigm shift in shipping that he was not able to anticipate (when the intermodal trucks and buses sank Eastern Visayas shipping).

So I always wondered what made Tacloban port click then. From my father, when I was still young, I got to learn what is a regional trade center, a regional capital, the importance of the two and it so happened that Tacloban happened to be both. The city by Cancabato Bay was really the dominant market east of Cebu City, bar none. My father always drilled me about cash crops and commodities and how it impacted or shall we say how it shaped shipping. He told me the government can always build ports and send ships to a port by inducement but he said if there is no cargo it won’t last as he stressed cargo makes shipping and not the other way around. Now, how many in government knows that maxim? Definitely not Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who loves “ports to nowhere” a lot!

taclooban

Tacloban port. Photo by Gerry Ruiz.

My father was very aware of the shift of the primary cash crop from abaca to copra in the 1950’s and its impact on shipping. In high school, I saw that with my own eyes. Proud, wealthy families in our province which grew rich on abaca handicrafts and trading suddenly became more modest in living. I saw how their bodegas became empty and how the abaca workers suffered. At the same time, I also saw how busy the private port of Legaspi Oil became. Legaspi Oil, an American firm, was then the biggest copra exporter of the country.

Our old man also told me about San Pablo City and how desiccated coconut and coconut oil milling made it one of our earliest cities. He also related me when I was in high school that Laguna was no longer the king of coconut. Leyte was the new lord and I understood by inference how that will boost Tacloban port, its shipping and the city itself.

With PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) co-founder Gorio Belen’s research in the National Library I had more flesh of what my father was telling me when I was young. Tacloban was a great port of call in the 1960’s and 1970’s and that was visible with the frequency of ships there and the quality of its ships. Definitely it cannot match Cebu or even Iloilo but it was not far behind the latter. And to think the latter had ships calling that were still going to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao (Cotabato, Dadiangas and Davao). Tacloban also had ships still going south to Surigao, Butuan or even Davao but it was not that many. What Tacloban had were ships calling in Catbalogan or Masbate before steaming further. There were also ships calling in Tacloban first before heading for Cebu.

Entering the ’60’s, Iloilo had 10 ship calls weekly while Tacloban had 7. That was when Cagayan de Oro only had 4 ship calls per week from Manila but Butuan and Surigao both had 6 each. Won’t you wonder with those figures? Well, Cagayan de Oro only became great when it became a gateway to Southern and Central Mindanao with the improvement of the highways. That will also tell one how Tacloban, the gateway to Eastern Samar then, stacked up to other ports. Catbalogan is also not far behind because in the main the ships that called on Tacloban also called on Catbalogan first to maximize passenger and cargo volume.

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Catbalogan port. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

In the 1960’s, it was air-conditioning that already defined what is a luxury ship and Tacloban was among the first that had a ship with air-conditioning beginning with the MV Sweet Rose in 1967 (and she served Tacloban for long) and the MV Sweet Grace in 1970. Both were liners of Sweet Lines and they were good ships with good service (I first heard that phrase from my late father, funny). And that was when other great shipping companies still did not have that kind of ship (and that will also tell how great Sweet Lines then). Even the great port of Cebu still had plenty of ex-”FS” ships then which was the basic kind of liner then. And that will give one a view of how important Tacloban port was in those days.

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The MV Gen. Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose. Philippine Herald photo. Reseach by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

A little of history. Right after the war, two shipping companies fought it out in the main Eastern Visayas ports of Tacloban and Catbalogan. These two were the old shipping company Compania Maritima which was of Spanish origin and the General Shipping Company (GSC) which were formed by former World War II military aides coming from distinguished Filipino families that were part of the comprador bourgeoisie. At one time, GSC had more ships to the two ports with three while Compania Maritima only had two. Another old shipping company, the Escano Lines also fought in the Tacloban route. Unlike the two, the ships of Escano Lines still went on to Surigao and Butuan which were their stronghold.

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MV Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

There were some smaller shipping companies too in the route like the Philippine Sea Transport, Veloso Lines, Corominas Richards Navigation and the Royal Lines. Among the single ships that also called in the two ports were the M/S Leyte Lady and M/S Lady of Lourdes. In the mentioned shipping lines, converted “FS” and extended “F” ships were the types calling in the two ports. Among that type that served long in the route (but not continuously) was the MV Leyte of Compania Maritima and I mentioned that because that was notable.

In 1955, Everett Steamship through the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), a joint venture of Everett and Aboitiz entered Catbalogan and Tacloban with the quixotic route Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Bislig-Davao-Dadiangas-Cebu-Manila. They used two brand-new liners alternatingly, the MV Legazpi and the MV Elcano. Those two were the first brand-new liners used solely in the local routes (to distinguish them from the big De la Rama Steamship liners that soon ended up in ocean-going routes).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

The MV Legazpi and MV Elcano were sister ships and fitted what was soon emerging as the new luxury liner class in the country (but the two were not at par with some of the luxury ships before especially the De la Rama Steamship liners which were lost in the war). If one has the money the route was a good way to tour the country and is a direct way to Southern Mindanao without going first to Cebu (because normally a passenger need to go there first from Eastern Visayas to take a connecting voyage). It was a nice route but sadly it did not last long because from the eastern seaboard route its route was shifted to the route rounding Zamboanga (I guess the reason was there was more business there and the seas were not so rough).

In the early ’60s, the Philippine Pioneer Lines, a subsidiary of the Philippine President Lines (PPL) also tried the Catbalogan plus Tacloban route. When they stopped sailing, their successor shipping company Galaxy Lines continued sailing that route but they did not last long when they folded operations as a company. The two companies used ex-“FS” and ex-“AKL” ships from the US Navy.

When General Shipping Company stopped local operations to go ocean-going in the mid-60s (and that provoked a break within the company), one of the companies which acquired half of their fleet and routes was the upstart Sweet Lines which was trying to follow the path of Go Thong & Company in trying be a national liner operation from a regional operations by acquiring an existing national liner shipping company which is quitting business. The other half of General Shipping fleet went to Aboitiz Shipping Company which then was revived as a shipping company separate from PSNC (and maybe the reason was the coming termination of the so-called “Parity Rights” in 1974). However, it was the PSNC that was used as the entity to re-enter the Tacloban but just using an ex-”FS” ship, the MV Carmen which came from the General Shipping Company and renamed.

At this time, however, the dominant shipping company in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route/s was already Compania Maritima (it was also the biggest shipping company then in the Philippines) after their main rival General Shipping exited the local shipping scene. The company had three ships assigned there, two of which were ex-”FS” ships including the aforementioned MV Leyte.

The year 1967 marked a change in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route. For the second time after the short-lived fielding of the luxury liners of PSNC the route had luxury liners again and two were competing against each other. The notable thing was they both came from General Shipping and both were local-builds by NASSCO (National Shipyards and Steel Corp., the current Herma Shipyard) in Mariveles, Bataan. These were the former second MV General Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose and the former second General Del Pilar which became the third MV Mactan of Compania Maritima.

However, the two were not fast cruiser liners. This category was already multiplying in the country with the fielding of the 17.5-knot brand-new cruisers of Negros Navigation Company, the MV Dona Florentina in 1965 and the MV Don Julio in 1967. This was preceded by the MV President Quezon of the Philippine President Lines which later became the MV Galaxy of Galaxy Lines which was first fielded in 1962. A note, however, the earlier MV Don Julio of Ledesma Lines which was an overpowered (by putting a submarine engine) ex-”FS” ship can also be classified as a fast cruiser liner and it also served the Leyte route shortly as the MV Pioneer Leyte of Philippine Pioneer Lines.

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The earlier MV Don Julio which became the MV Pioneer Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In this tight market, a small shipping company serving Bicol and Northern Samar also tried a Catbalogan and Tacloban route. This was the Rodrigueza Shipping Corporation which was already feeling the effects of the Philippine National Railways in Bicol regarding the movement of cargo. However, two Chinoy shipping companies that will dominate Philippine shipping in a decade-and-a-half’s time were still not represented in the route. The two were William Lines and Sulpicio Lines (which was not yet existent then). The mother company of Sulpicio Lines which was Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was also not in this route at this time. They will come in two years time, however, with the fielding of the first MV Don Enrique which was a lengthened former “FS” ship. You know they tended to start quietly.

Many ex-”FS” ships or even smaller ships were battling in the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes after 1967. Many will battle for there is cargo and copra was so strong then (exports to the US, Japan and Germany when we had 44% share of the world’s exports) not only in Tacloban but also in a way in Catbalogan which was synonymous with fishing before overfishing caught up with them. In this era, imported rice does not yet go direct to the provincial ports and Eastern Visayas is a rice-deficit region and Cotabato and other parts of the country sends rice to it through trans-shipment. Many other grocery and hardware items also come from Manila to the region as Eastern Visayas was not an industrial region.

In the luxury liner category, however, the MV Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines and the  MV Mactan of Compania Maritima started their battle. This was actually a very even battle because the two were sister ships but the third MV Mactan was faster at 16 knots to the 13.5 knots of the MV Sweet Rose because she was fitted with a bigger engine. Compania Maritima fielded the MV Mactan here because the MV Sweet Rose was overpowering their MV Leyte which was just a lengthened ex-”FS” ship. In a few years, however, the MV Mactan will sink in a storm and MV Leyte will come back in the Eastern Visayas routes.

Leading into the next decade, the 1970’s produced significant changes. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor to PSNC abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban routes and just concentrated in Western and Southern Leyte which was their origin (it had lots of copra too). Morever, the rising William Lines was already present and two successor companies of Go Thong & Company, the Sulpicio Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines+Lozenzo Shipping Corporation (two shipping companies with combined operations before their split in 1979) were also plying the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes but they were just using ex-”FS” ships. The old partner of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation before the war, the Escano Lines also left Tacloban but maintained Catbalogan as a port of call as long as their MV Rajah Suliman was still capable of sailing.

In the stead of the lost minor shipping lines of the region like Veloso Lines, some minor shipping companies were also doing the route. Among them were N&S Lines and NORCAMCO Lines which were actually Bicol and Northern Samar shipping companies. The two were looking for routes near their turf because of lost passengers and cargo from the opening up of the Maharlika Highway. Well, although Maharlika Highway was not yet fully paved, the trucks were beginning to roll to Bicol and maybe somehow they have already seen the handwriting on the wall. Rodrigueza Shipping, also a Bicol shipping company stopped sailing the route.

Soon, however, Sulpicio Lines upped the ante and fielded a liner with size, air-conditioning and service that will challenge the MV Sweet Rose and MV Mactan. This was the MV Dona Angelina which was a former refrigerated cargo ship in Europe. That type of ship, when converted here as a passenger-cargo ship will automatically have the availability of refrigeration and air-conditioning. At 13.5 knots design speed, she can match the pace of the MV Sweet Rose but not of the MV Mactan. The MV Dona Angelina was the second ship of Sulpicio Lines in the route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In response, Sweet Lines brought in their former flagship into the route, the MV Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany in 1968. She has the speed of 15.5 knots but she was not bigger than MV Dona Angelina or even the MV Dona Vicente (that later became the MV Palawan Princess) which was assigned also to the route. Competition was really heating up in 1974 and I remember this year was the peaking of copra prices just before its great fall.

Things were really heated up because next year Sulpicio Lines brought in their new flagship MV Don Sulpicio on its way to Cebu which means a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu route. Can you imagine that? If former flagship and current flagship will battle in this route then that means Tacloban and Catbalogan were very important ports then. And to think the later well-regarded MV Dona Vicenta also practically debuted on that route. Well, copra was still then a very important crop. In fact it was our primary cash crop then. By the way, the flagship MV Don Sulpicio was the later infamous MV Dona Paz and she came from Tacloban and Catbalogan on her last voyage.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In the heat of this competition, it was actually the old dominant Compania Maritima that was wilting. Their MV Mactan foundered in 1973 and there was no good replacement available and so the old ship MV Leyte was left shouldering alone and she was already badly outgunned by the ships of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. In the 1970’s there was no way a former “FS” ships can match the new liners that came from Europe. They simply were bigger, faster and had more amenities.

When the MV Don Sulpicio was assigned the exclusive Manila-Cebu route to join the two-way battle there of MV Cebu City and MV Sweet Faith, the good MV Dona Vicenta replaced her in the route and teamed up with the MV Dona Angelina. In 1976, however, William Lines fielded a very worthy challenger, the namesake of Tacloban which was the MV Tacloban City and she held the Catbalogan and Tacloban route for a long, long time. At 17.5 knots design speed she can match the best of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. Aside from speed she can also match in size, accommodation and service.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

And so in this year several ships that can be classified as luxury lines were battling in the route. That was an indication how important was that route. As a note, however, the MV Sweet Grace was reassigned by Sweet Lines to other routes especially since their luxury liner MV Sweet Home was no longer reliable. Meanwhile, the shrinking former nationally dominant Compania Maritima no longer fielded a second ship since they were already lacking ships because they no longer acquired a ship since 1970 despite a rash of hull losses.

In 1979, the death knell of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports was sounded clear although few realized it at that time for there was no concept of intermodal shipping before. This was the fielding of MV Cardinal Ferry I of Cardinal Shipping to span the San Juanico Strait and buses and trucks to and from Manila immediately rolled the new highways of Samar and Leyte. By this time copra as the primary cash and export crop of the country was already receding fast in importance because the export market was already shrinking due to the rise of what is called as substitute oils like corn oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

It was not Catbalogan and Tacloban which were first swamped by paradigm changes but the other ports of Samar like Laoang, Victoria and Calbayog (which I will discuss in another as these ports are more connected to Bicol and Masbate). The fall of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports will happen much later when copra has almost lost its importance. This was also the time that Manila oil mills has already been sidelined too by the rise of new oil mills in the provinces (and the government actually promoted that).

Although sliding now, for a time it looked like Tacloban and Catbalogan ports will hold on to the onslaught of the intermodal. One reason for that was in the crisis decade of the 1980’s it was the Top 2 Sulpicio Lines and William Lines that were still battling there and for sure none of the two will budge an inch. That was the decade when so many shipping companies quit business altogether (and that was most of our liner companies) and actually no shipping company was left unscathed.

In the late 1980’s, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) made a comeback in national liner shipping but it did not enter Tacloban or Catbalogan. Instead, they called on the Western Leyte ports of Palompon, Isabel and Ormoc before proceeding to Cebu and it was actually a very successful route for them. Also, the Madrigal Steamship came back to passenger shipping with good luxury liner cruisers (which were already obsolescent as it was already the  time of ROROs or Roll-on, Roll-off ships) and it had a Manila-Romblon-Catbalogan-Tacloban route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

However, this was not a long plus to Eastern Visayas liner shipping because in the early ’90s the venerable Sweet Lines and Escano Lines quit passenger shipping and although the latter still had cargo ships their presence were already receding in the region. And then the Madrigal Steamship did just last a few years and quit their passenger shipping also. There were no other entrants in this period to the region except just before the end of the millennium when the MBRS Lines of Romblon, seeking new routes entered the San Isidro port in Northern Samar. However, they also did not last long.

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MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Ozamis port. Jorg Behman photo. Credits: John Luzares

When the “Great Merger”which produced the shipping company WG&A happened in 1996, they did not add a new ship and just altered two routes a little. Actually, what happened is they even pulled out a ferry from Carlos A. Gothong Lines and just left one which was mainly the MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart (WG&A is a shipping company which changed route assignment every now and then). However, one of their ships which was passed on to their regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) tried a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route using the MV Our Lady of Akita 2 which was the former MV Maynilad. Although successful, she did not last long because she grounded in Canigao Channel and was never repaired.

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Credits to Toshihiko Mikami and funikichemurase

The last two liners to serve Catbalogan and Tacloban were the MV Masbate Uno of William Lines and WG&A and the MV Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines which had identical routes. The MV Cebu Princess also spelled the latter ship when she was down for repairs. When the MV Masbate Uno left as the the MV Our Lady of Manaoag of Cebu Ferries Corporation she was briefly replaced by the MV Our Lady of Naju in the Tacloban route.

Catbalogan and Tacloban finally had no liners left when Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger operations in 2008 when their MV Princess of the Stars sank in a typhoon and the MV Tacloban Princess was sold to a local breaker. That suspension also meant the end of the old MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines serving the ports of Calubian, Maasin and Baybay in the island of Leyte. That also meant the end of the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route of the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The WG&A also abandoned Tacloban and just tried to hold on to their Palompon/Ormoc route

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Photo by John Cabanillas of PSSS.

In a short time, however, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) which was the successor to WG&A also abandoned their Western Leyte routes too. However, for a time ATS came back and served Ormoc with the Manila-Romblon-Ormoc-Cebu route using the MV St. Anthony of Padua but that did not last long.

Now there are no more liners to Eastern Visayas and only oldtimers remember when its ports and shipping were still great. What the millennials know now are the intermodal buses and the so-many trucks in the many ports of Allen, Northern Samar.

Times have changed. The paradigm changed, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Convergence, Parallels, Rivalry and Divergence of Sweet Lines and William Lines

For introduction, Sweet Lines is a shipping company that started in Tagbilaran, Bohol while William Lines is a shipping company started in Cebu City after the war while having earlier origins in Misamis Occidental before the war. And like many shipping lines whose founders are of Chinese extraction, the founders of both Sweet Lines and William Lines were first into copra trading before branching into shipping. And long after the two became national shipping lines Bol-anons and people of Misamisnons still have a close identification and affinity to the two shipping companies and in fact were the still the prides of their provinces.

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1950 William Lines ad. Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

William Lines became a national liner company in 1945 just right after the end of the war and almost exactly 20 years before Sweet Lines which was just a Visayas-Mindanao shipping company after the war whose main base is Bohol. The company just became a national liner company when it was able to buy half of the ships and routes of General Shipping Corporation when that company decided to quit the inter-island routes in 1965 after a boardroom squabble among the partner families owning it. And so William Lines had quite a head start over Sweet Lines. Now, readers might be puzzled now where is the convergence.

People who are already old enough now might think the convergence of the two shipping companies, a rivalry in fact, started when Sweet Lines fielded the luxury liner Sweet Faith in the Manila-Cebu route in 1970. That ship raised a new bar in liner shipping then plus it started a new paradigm in Cebu, that of the fast cruiser liner which is more dedicated to passengers and their comfort than cargo and has the highest level of passenger accommodations and amenities. It was really hard to match the Sweet Faith then for she was really a luxury liner even when she was still in Europe. That fast cruiser liner was not just some converted passenger-cargo or cargo-passenger ship which was the origins of practically of all the liners of the postwar period until then.

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Credits to Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Actually, the rivalry of Sweet Lines and William Lines started from convergence. William Lines, in their first 20 years of existence, was basically concentrating on the Southern Mindanao routes but of course its ships which were all ex-”FS” ships then called on Cebu and Tagbilaran first before heading south. Aside from Southern Mindanao, the only other area where William Lines concentrated was the Iligan Bay routes, specifically Iligan and Ozamis, near where the founder and the business of William Lines originated. But in 1966, William Lines started its acquisition of cargo-passenger ships from Europe for conversion here like what Go Thong & Company earlier did and what Sweet Lines will soon follow into. It was actually an expansion as they were not disposing of their old ex-”FS” ships and naturally an expansion of the fleet will mean seeking of new routes or concentration. 

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

Sweet Lines, meanwhile, had an initial concentration of routes in the Eastern Visayas as a liner company which was dictated by the purchase of half of the fleet of General Shipping Corporation which consisted of five liners which were all ex-”FS” ships except for the new local-built General Roxas plus the Sea Belle of Royal Lines which was going out of business. But Sweet Lines immediately expanded and was also plying already the Cebu and Tagbilaran routes from Manila, naturally, because their main base was Tagbilaran. Then they also entered the Iligan Bay routes in 1967 and it was even using the good Sweet Rose (the former General Roxas) there which was a heavy challenge to all the shipping companies serving there that were just using ex-”FS” ships there previously. Of course, not to be outdone William Lines later brought there their brand-new Misamis Occidental, their flagship then, in 1970. If William Lines had two frequencies a week to the two ports of Iligan Bay in 1967, then that was the frequency of Sweet Lines too. And if William Lines had twice a week frequency to Cebu and Tagbilaran, then that was also the frequency of the expanding Sweet Lines. Their only difference in 1967 was William Lines had routes to Southern Mindanao while Sweet Lines had none there but the latter had routes to the strong shipping region then of Eastern Visayas while William Lines had no route then there.

Another area of confrontation of the two shipping companies was the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes. Sweet Lines was long a power then there especially since that was their place of origin. They then relegated there most of the ex-”FS” ships like the ones they acquired from General Shipping and thus in the late 1960’s they had the best ships sailing there. Meanwhile, William Lines which was also a player there also then used some of their ex-”FS” ships which were formerly in the liner routes (William Lines had a few ex-”FS” ships to spare since they bought five of those from other local shipping companies and they already were receiving former cargo-passenger ships from Europe starting in 1966). So by this time Sweet Lines and William Lines were not only competing in Cebu and Tagbilaran and in Iligan Bay but also in the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes.

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Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen 

In the late 1960’s the government provided a loan window for the purchase of brand-new liners and among the countries that provided the funds for that was what was known as West Germany then (this was before the German reunification). From that window, the new liner company Sweet Lines ordered the Sweet Grace from Weser Seebeck of Bremerhaven, West Germany in 1968. William Lines followed suit by ordering a brand-new liner not from West Germany but from Japan which turned out to be the Misamis Occidental and this seemed to be taking the path of the expansion of Negros Navigation Company which was ordering brand-new liners from Japan shipbuilders. 

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Credits to Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

Imagine for William Lines fielding the brand-new Misamis Occidental in Cebu in 1970 only to be upset by the more luxurious and much faster Sweet Faith in the same year. And that was aside from the also-good Sweet Grace and Sweet Rose also calling in Cebu. Maybe that was the reason, that of not being too outgunned, that William Lines immediately ordered a new ship from Japan, a sister ship of the Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company but with a more powerful engine so she can top or at least match the speed of the Sweet Faith and that turned out later to be the legendary liner Cebu City. From its fielding in 1972, the battle of Cebu City and Sweet Faith was the stuff of legends (was using blocks of ice to cool down the engine room of Sweet Faith at full trot a stuff of legend?)

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

As background to that, in 1970 with only the brand-new liner Misamis Occidental William Lines had to fend off Sweet Faith, Sweet Rose, also the first Sweet Sail which was a former liner of Southern Lines that was not an ex-”FS” ship but much faster and at times also the brand-new liner Sweet Grace . William Lines had a few converted cargo-passenger ships from Europe calling in Cebu already on the way to Southern Mindanao then but Sweet Lines had the same number of that also. If William Lines found aggressiveness in ship purchases from the mid-1960’s, Sweet Lines turned out to be more aggressive that in a short period of less than a decade it was already in the coattails of William Lines over-all and even beating it to Cebu, the backyard of William Lines. That was how aggressive was Sweet Lines in their initial ascent as a national liner company. And would anyone believe that in 1970 Sweet Lines was no longer using any ex-”FS” ship in its national liner routes, the first national liner company to do so (when other competitors were still using that type well in to the 1980’s)? So their ad their they were modern seems it was not a made-up stuff only.

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A former cargo-passenger ship from Europe using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao route. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

But that was not even the end of the expansion of Sweet Lines which the company penetrated the Southern Mindanao, the bread and butter of William Lines (note: Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co. and Philippine Steam Navigation Co. were stronger there having more ships) using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, a route that William Lines do not serve. It is actually a shortcut, as pointed out by Sweet Lines but there are not many intermediate ports that can be served there to increase the volume of the cargo and the passengers (and so Sweet Lines passed through more ports before heading to Surigao and Davao). Besides, the seas of the eastern seaboard are rough many months of the year and maybe that was the reason why Sweet Lines used their bigger former cargo-passenger ships from Europe rather than using their small ex-”FS” ships (in this period their competitors to Davao were still using that type).

And so, in 1972, William Lines entered the stronghold of Sweet Lines, which it dominated, the port of Tacloban which the company was not serving before. Was that to repay the compliments of Sweet Lines entering their Iligan Bay bastion and their ports of Cebu and Tagbilaran plus the foray of Sweet Lines in Davao? William Lines entered Tacloban alright but it was a tepid attempt at first by just using an ex-”FS” ship (maybe they just want to take away some cargo). Their main challenge in Tacloban will come three years later in 1975 with their fast cruiser liner Tacloban City, only the third of its type in William Lines after the liners Misamis Occidental and Cebu City and that maybe shows how itching was William Lines in returning the compliments. Or showing up Sweet Lines.

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Where were the other leading national liner companies in this battle of the two? Regarding Gothong & Company, I think their sights were more aimed at the leading shipping company Compania Maritima plus in filling the requirements of strategic partner Lu Do & Lu Ym which was scooping all the the copra that they can get. Actually, the Go Thong & Company and Compania Maritima both had overseas lines then. Meanwhile, the Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) and plus Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (revived as a separate entity in 1966 after the buy-out of the other half of General Shipping Corporation) and Cebu Bohol Ferry Company, a subsidiary of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which are operating as one is competing neither here or there as it seems they were just content on keeping what was theirs and that the interests of Everett Steamship, the American partner of Aboitiz in PSNC will be protected and later cornered when the Laurel-Langley Agreement lapses in 1974. Plus Aboitiz through the Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works were raking it all in servicing the ships of the competition including the lengthening of the ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships of their competitors (plus of course their own). Their routes are so diverse and even quixotic that I cannot see their focal point. It is not Cebu for sure and whereas their rivals were already acquiring new ships they were moored in maintaining their so-many ex-”FS” ships (they had then the most in the country). Also in owning Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works they were confident they can make these ships run forever as they had lots of spare parts in stock and maybe that was through their American connection (not only through Everett Steamship but the Aboitizes are also American citizens). Besides, in Everett Steamship they were also in overseas routes and having overseas routes plus domestic shipping was the hallmark of the first tier of shipping companies then aside from having more ships. In this first tier, the Philippine President Lines (PPL) was also in there but later they surrendered their domestic operations.

Meanwhile, the greatest thrust of Gothong & Company it seems was to serve the needs and interests of Lu Do & Lu Ym but it was a strategic partnership that brought Gothong a lot of dividends so much so that before their break-up in 1972 they might have already been ahead of Compania Maritima in the inter-island routes with all the small ships that they are sailing in the regional routes aside from the national routes. Gothong & Company as might not be realized by many is actually a major regional shipping company too and with a bigger area than that served by Sweet Lines and William Lines for they were operating a lot of small ferries whose primary role is to transport the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra and coconut oil concern then in the country and carrying passengers is just secondary. In the Visayas-Mindanao routes, the Top 3 were actually Go Thong & Company, Sweet Lines and William Lines, in that order maybe. From Cebu, Go Thong had small ships to as far as Tawi-tawi and the Moro Gulf plus the eastern seaboard of Mindanao and Samar. Sweet Lines, however was very strong in passenger department.

In the early 1970’s, many will be surprised if I will say that the fleets of William Lines and Sweet Lines were at near parity but the former had a slight pull. And that was really a mighty climb by Sweet Lines from just being a major regional shipping company, a result of their aggressiveness and ambition. Imagine nearly catching up William Lines, an established shipping company with loads of political connection (think of Ferdinand Marcos, a good friend of William Chiongbian, the founder) and topping the likes of whatever General Shipping Company, Southern Lines and Escano Lines have ever reached. Entering the late 1970’s, Sweet Lines (and William Lines) were already beginning to threaten the place of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (including the integrated Philippine Steam Navigation Corporation) which will drop off a lot subsequently after they stopped buying ships after 1974.

Where did the divergence of the two very comparable shipping companies began? It began from 1975 when William Lines started acquiring the next paradigm-changing type of ships, the surplus fast cruiser liners from Japan which Sweet Lines declined to match but which the rising successor-to-Gothong Sulpicio Lines did. At just the start of the 1980’s with the success from this type of ship William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were already jostling to replace the tottering Compania Maritima from its top perch. It seems Sweet Lines failed to realize the lesson that the former cargo-passenger ships from Europe and the brand-new Sweet Grace and the good Sweet Rose fueled their rise in the late 1960’s and that the acquired luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home continued their rise at the start of the 1970’s. And these former cargo-passenger ships from Europe also propelled Gothong & Company and William Lines in their ascent. Why did Sweet Lines stop acquiring good liners? Was there a financial reason behind their refusal to join the fast cruiser phenomenon? Well, they were not the only ones which did not join the fast cruiser liner bandwagon.

The biggest blunder of Sweet Lines was when they declared in 1978 that henceforth they will just acquire small RORO passenger ships. I do not know if they were imitating Sulpicio Lines which went for small ROROs first (but then that company had fast cruiser liners from Japan). That might have been good for their regional routes but not for the liner routes. And to think their luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home might already conk out anytime because of old age (yes, both were gone in two years). And so for a short period Sweet Lines have no good liners for Cebu, the time William Lines was fielding their Dona Virginia, the biggest and fastest liner when it was fielded and Sulpicio Lines was fielding the Philippine Princess. What a blasphemy and turn-around! In 1970, just ten years earlier, Sweet Lines was dominating William Lines in the Cebu route. That was a miscalculation from which Sweet Lines never seemed to recover. From fielding the best there, Sweet Lines suddenly had no horse. And so the next chapter of the luxury liner wars in the premier Manila-Cebu route was fought not by William Lines and Sweet Lines but by William Lines and the surging Sulpicio Lines. In just a decade’s time Sweet Lines forgot that it was modernity in ships and aggression in routes that brought them to where they were.

1980 Dona Virginia

Credits to Daily Express and Gorio Belen

When Sweet Lines acquired the Sweet RORO in 1982 to battle again in the Manila-Cebu route it was as if they imitated the strategy of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) to go direct into the RORO or ROPAX paradigm and bypass the fast cruiser liners altogether (but then where was CAGLI in the totem pole of liner companies even if they bypassed the fast cruiser liner stage?). But by then their former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already failing and will very soon be gone. The net effect was the Sweet Lines liner total was regressing even though they acquired the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983 to pair the Sweet RORO. The reason for this is its former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already in its last gasps and the small ROROs were never really suited for liner duty except for the direct routes to Tagbilaran and Tacloban. If studied it can be shown that when a liner company stops at some time to buy liners sufficient in numbers and size then they get left behind. This is also what happened to Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines, the reason the fell by the wayside in the 1980’s). And that is what happened to Sweet Lines just a little bit later and so its near-parity with Williams Lines which surged in the 1970’s and 1980’s was broken. And that completed their divergence.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the early 1990’s, Sweet Lines will completely fail and stop all shipping operations, in liners, regional shipping and cargo operations (through their Central Shipping Corporation) and sell their ships with some of the ships sadly being broken up (a few of their ships were also garnished by creditors). Meanwhile, William Lines was still trying then to catch up with Sulpicio Lines that had overtaken them through a big splash in big and fast ROPAXes in 1988.

Sweet Lines benefited in the middle of the 1960’s with the quitting of General Shipping and Royal Lines. Later, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines benefited with the retreat of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the late 1970’s. In the next decade, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines benefited from the collapse of Compania Maritima in the crisis years at the tailend of the Marcos dictatorship. Sweet Lines did not benefit from that because they were not poised to because of their grave error in 1978.

When Sweet Lines collapsed in the early 1990’s it seems among those which benefited was the revived Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which was helped in getting back to the liner business by Jebsens of Norway (think SuperFerry). Well, that’s just the way it is in competition. It is a rat race and one can never pause or stop competing as the others will simply swallow the weak.

A Good Ship That Was Not Able To Outrun A Typhoon

The FS-220, when she came to the Philippines in 1960 was among the last “FS” ships that arrived in the country. She was among the batch used by the US Navy after the war for resupply missions and released from service starting in 1959. For reasons that are not yet clear to me I do not know how the newly-established Philippine President Lines (PPL) was able to corner a big chunk of these last-released “FS” ships. And that batch was the envy of many and even abroad because the US Navy knows how to maintain its ships (and it has the budget) and compared to ex-”FS” ships already in the country which just sails and sails that last batch does not have worn engines yet.

The FS-220 was a ship built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, USA which was the designer and builder of the famous Higgins boats. She measured 54.9 meters by 9.8 meters by 3.2 meters and originally had 573 tons in gross register tonnage. Like most other “FS” ships she was powered by two GM Cleveland engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower and her maximum speed was 12 knots.

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Photo credits: Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

FS” ships transferred from the US Army (the operator in World War II) to the US Navy for postwar duty usually have alterations already to suit their mission. Many still undergo further conversions here to suit the local shipping needs and situation and that mainly consists of increasing the passenger capacity.

In the Philippine President Lines fleet, the FS-220 became known as the President Roxas. She was the first ship to carry this name in the fleet. She was also known now by the ID IMO 6117958. Upon conversion, she already had three passenger decks including the lowermost where cargo is also stowed. The first route of the President Roxas was Manila-Cebu-Iligan.

The Philippine President Lines did not last long in the inter-island route and when it concentrated on overseas shipping they established the subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 to take over the inter-island operations and so the President Roxas went to Philippine Pioneer Lines. Her first route for this new company was the quaint Manila-Masbate-Bulan-Allen-Legaspi-Tabaco route. As such she became a Bicol specialist with a slight diversion to Samar. This was the period when sending a ship to Bicol still made sense.

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Photo credits: The Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After two major accidents in 1966 which were the floundering of the Pioneer Cebu in a typhoon and the collision involving Pioneer Leyte which lead to her breaking up, Philippine Pioneer Lines ceased operation. In 1967, Galaxy Lines replaced her and the fleet of Philippine Pioneer Lines was transferred into the Galaxy fleet. The President Roxas became the Venus in the fleet of Galaxy Lines where ships were named after constellations.

She did not last long in Galaxy Lines, however, and was sold immediately sold to N&S Lines, Inc. Galaxy Lines no longer had Bicol routes while N&S Lines had Bicol and Samar routes and maybe the reason for the sale was to avoid taking out a ship in those routes. In N&S Lines, she did the Manila-Allen-Carangian (now known as San Jose)-Legaspi (now spelled as Legazpi)-Laoang route. Only the route to Tabaco port was the one practically dropped.

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Photo credits: Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Venus would hold for long that route and leaving Manila every Tuesday at 9pm. Slowly, she became a fixture in this route. In 1976, a new ship, the Queen of Samar of Newport Shipping Lines issued a challenge to her. There were other passenger-cargo ships to her route from Manila with slightly different ports of call but the ships of the New Shipping Lines were the most dangerous as the Queen of Samar was not the only ship that entered the Northern Samar and nearby routes. In fact, it totaled six. I really can’t understand what was the attraction of Northern Samar and the nearby ports to Newport Shipping Lines.

And then from that in just three years the bottom fell out for these routes because suddenly the San Bernardino Strait was connected by the RORO ship Cardinal I of Cardinal Shipping and suddenly buses and trucks from Manila started running to Samar directly. There was no longer any need to bring the cargo to North Harbor. Ditto for the passengers. Suddenly, the viability of the Samar routes began to evaporate and what was just propping it up was the intermediate route to Masbate.

1974-8-30-schedules

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Though the Manila ships began to evaporate too in the routes passing through San Bernardino Strait especially those that had concentration to Bicol, the Venus was one of the most resilient and she outlasted practically every other passenger-cargo ship in the Northern Samar routes when to think buses and trucks were already arriving daily there. Maybe there were passengers which still prefer the ship or might have been too attached to them.

Nearing her 40th year of life, Venus was sailing from Samar to Manila. There was a Category 5 super-typhoon then approaching the Philippines from the east and its central pressure was 880 millibars which is even lower than Typhoon “Yolanda”’s 890 millibars (the lower the number the stronger is the typhoon). There was also a typhoon that was developing in South China See at the same time. Maybe Venus thought that by sailing she will be putting distance from the stronger typhoon and might have underestimated or failed to notice the storm in South China Sea which was just a tropical depression when she sailed. It seems Venus also failed to understand well the effects on the sea of a Sibuyan Sea. The two typhoons were actually interacting and in fact the stronger typhoon was sucking the weaker one. Venus might have failed to understand well the risks when she embarked on her final voyage.

It was in Sibuyan Sea when Venus finally discovered the sea was roiling and the winds were unforgiving. The ex-”FS” ships were particularly vulnerable to typhoons and that was why her old captains here were masters of finding the coves and inlets where they can hide or shelter the ship when the weather acts up.

It seems Venus tried to hightail it to a port or was desperately trying to find shelter (as she already diverted from her route if gauged from where she perished). However, in Tayabas Bay it seems Venus was not able to weather the wind and the waves and floundered on October 28, 1984 (in Tayabas Bay the winds then will be hitting her broadside at port). There was no trace of the ship after the typhoon and 36 people perished with her, unfortunately.

On a note, the Lorenzo Container VIII of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation was another ship that floundered in that twin interacting storm. This even bigger ship sank on the same day as Venus north of Abra de Ilog, Occidental Mindoro, in a sea which is even farther than the stronger typhoon (which was incidentally named also as Typhoon “Reming” like the deadliest storm to visit Bicol in the recent decades).

The sinking of Venus even had repercussions in our place. When about to ride a ship, my earthbound relatives would remind me of her fate (you know the oldies then!). The floundering in another typhoon of the Dona Marilyn in a nearby sea, the Samar Sea, four years later in 1988 did not help either.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The Venus served the same route for 17 years. That was long by any local measure. It took two typhoons to end her memorable career. Small shipping companies really take hard a sinking and coupled with weakening routes and the general crisis of that era, the Ninoy post-assassination years, N&S Lines, her company also went under.

After the sinking of Venus, the routes to Northern Samar from Manila also died. In the 1990’s MBRS Lines from Romblon tried to revive it. But there was really no way to defeat the new paradigm, the intermodal system. And so it died again. Finally.