The RORO Cargo Ships of Sulpicio Lines Are All Gone Now

When Sulpicio Lines acquired big (by local standards) RORO Cargo ships in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I thought they were hoarding some ships that can be later converted in ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ships in the mold of what Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) did when they were able to come up with the beautiful Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan (and none would have thought that were their origins) and sister ships. I do not know what truly were their plans but if that was their intention then events soon overtook them when in the new millennium the bottom fell out of passenger liner shipping when budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks drew away passengers and cargo from the liners. This was shown when passenger capacities of the newly-fielded liners went down in the new millennium to 2,000 from 3,000 plus before and “carferries” that came had their two cargo decks just retained.

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The Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Britz Salih

The RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines I am talking about were the ships known as Sulpicio Express Uno, Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres. The three, if compared to the sister ships of CAGLI which went to WG&A were a little bigger and a little faster although all were single-engined which is the mark of cargo ships including RORO Cargo ships. If they have been converted into ROPAX ships they would have been as big as SuperFerry 1, SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 although a little slower.

The first of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Uno which arrived in 1997. This ship was the former Hokuto in Japan and she was built by Shin Yamamoto Shipbuilding in Kochi yard, Japan in 1980 with the ID IMO 8005733. Hokuto measured 129.9 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,176 tons and she had a service speed of 17 knots. This RORO Cargo ship has a bridge at the front and cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the quarter-stern, all features that will be very good had she been converted into a ROPAX ship.

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Sulpicio Express Uno by Aris Refugio

The second of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Dos which arrived here five years later in 2002. This ship was known as the Hokuo Maru in Japan and she was built by Shin Kurushima Hiroshima Dockyard Company in Akitsu, Japan in 1988 with the ID IMO 8817265. Her external measurements were 136.0 meters by 20.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 4,433 with a service speed too of 17 knots. She too had a bridge at the front with a cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the stern. She looks much like the Sulpicio Express Uno in the superstructure. With the same breadth I even wonder if she and Sulpicio Express Uno were actually sister ships. Even the placements of their ramps were the same.

The last of the three RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines to come was the Sulpicio Express Tres which also came in 2002. This ship was known as the Honshu Maru in Japan and she was built by Imabari Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan in 1989 with the ID IMO 8817071. She measured 128.5 meters by 20.4 meters and her gross tonnage was 4,695 and she had a service speed of 17 knots too. The ship also had a quarter-bow ramp and a stern ramp. Her difference though from the other two RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines was in having the bridge amidship. A position of the bridge amidship was not really a disqualification if she was intended for conversion into a ROPAX ship as shown by some local examples here like the Butuan Bay 1 of CAGLI although it might look a little ungainly.

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Sulpicio Express Tres by Aris Refugio

The three were almost of the same size and they had the same service speeds coming from single engines that average 10,000 horsepower which is a little bigger than the engines of the CAGLI sister ships. As built, all had two car decks. If converted all could have had one single cargo deck and three passenger decks with probably a passenger capacity of about 1,500. Like the CAGLI sister ships they might have had a service speed here of 16 knots or maybe a little better. They will be little slower than most big liners then but still acceptable and comparable to some of the newer but slower liners like the SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the San Paolo of Negros Navigation Company. Well, the service speed here of Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje was also 16 knots so that was acceptable.

One intriguing comparison I saw was with the Ozamis Bay 1, also of CAGLI. This former RORO Cargo ship that was converted into a ROPAX ship has external measurements of 130.3 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,545 tons which are almost the same as the three Sulpicio Expresses. I even wonder if she was a sister ship of Sulpicio Express Uno and Sulpicio Express Dos. However, her bridge was amidship and she was not converted beautifully. Hence, she did not look good and her passenger capacity was small at 601 persons. However, since she had 13,400 horsepower on tap she had a higher design speed at 19.5 knots.

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Ozamis Bay 1 by James Gabriel Verallo

The three Sulpicio Express ships were not converted into ROPAX ships and so they just served as RORO Cargo ships and doing what a container is doing except that she takes in container vans RORO (Roll on, Roll Off) in trailers compared to the LOLO (Lift On, Lift Off) method of the regular container ships. The three were in the container van trade and were never used to take in vehicles that were crossing the islands. But being faster the three really deserved a new series in Sulpicio Lines that is apart from the old Sulpicio Container (Sulcon) series of cargo ships.

In such method of carrying container vans, the three RORO Cargo ships became inefficient compared to the regular container ships. One, using trailers which are called “chassis” in the trade is additional investment and expense (and that also includes the trailer caddies). Second, unlike the regular container ships the RORO Cargo system of stowage takes more space as the container vans can’t be stacked one atop the other with no space in between the container vans. The loading and unloading might have been faster but all types of container ships here don’t really rush from port to port. Moreover, the engine sizes of the RORO Cargo ships are significantly larger than the regular container ships for the same length. They might have been faster but as mentioned before they don’t really rush as having enough cargo really takes time because there are simply too many bottoms. So the speed advantage is just negated.

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Sulpicio Express Dos as Span Asia 15 by Mike Baylon

When they were not converted into ROPAX ships, I was even wondering what was the reason Sulpicio Lines kept them for too long, in my view. Well, of course, Sulpicio Lines has no penchant for selling ships and especially to the breakers for as long as it still has economic value. Their only consolation then was they had the fastest cargo ships hereabouts (before the arrival of the faster RORO Cargo ships of Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC).

Two of the three still passed to the new name of Sulpicio Lines, the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) where the Sulpicio Express Dos became the Span Asia 15 and the Sulpicio Express Tres became the Span Asia 16 in 2013.

The three was a good view when they are in port or near the port. They were bigger than the regular container ships, they were taller and they look different and even their long cargo ramps seem to be an attraction. Maybe a few even had in their minds that the superstructure is near that of a ROPAX ship (and they were not wrong).

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Sulpicio Express Uno not sailing before her sale

When Sulpicio Lines began selling their passenger ships in the aftermath of the sinking of their Princess of the Stars and began buying container ships in their place, I somehow felt that the three RORO Cargo ship will also go somewhere down the line. With the size of the new container ships of Sulpicio Lines, it was obvious they were going for efficiency. They were no longer competing for the biggest or the fastest like before. Some container ships of Oceanic Container Lines were even bigger than theirs.

In October of 2013, the oldest of the three, which had already reports of engine trouble, the Sulpicio Express Uno was beached and broken up in in the ship-breaking capital of the world which is Alang, India. Then, in November of 2015, the Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres were broken up in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The two did not even reach 30 years of age and there were not yet reports of engine troubles from them. Sulpicio Lines just wanted to change ships for more efficiency and they had to go, sadly.

Now, the new Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC), the new name of Sulpicio Lines doesn’t have a RORO Cargo ship anymore. All they operate and all they have now are smaller container ships that are just fit for the container demand on them.

Sad to see the three go.

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The Liner That Sank A Liner Company (The Saga of the Princess of the Stars)

The Princess of the Stars of Sulpicio Lines Incorporated was the biggest-ever liner to grace the Philippine seas. She was not the longest, however, because such honor belonged to the Princess of the Orient, also of Sulpicio Lines but compared to that liner the Princess of the Stars was wider and taller and for confirmation, her Gross Tonnage (GT), the measure of the total volume of the ship, was higher. In the comparison, the M/S Philippines of Emilio Yap was excluded because that ship was not a sailing liner but a floating hotel when it came here.

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Photo from homepagenifty2

The Princess of the Stars was the second Ferry Lilac of Shin Nihonkai Ferry Company which is known in Japan for building big liners that sail the open waters of Japan. Shin Nihonkai was among the companies that offered the “Bypasses of the Sea” service in the earlier decades in Japan which meant big, fast ROROs that took in vehicles along sea lanes instead of it battling the clogged highways of Japan then. From utilitarian ROROs, that concept evolved into the “cruiseferries” in the 1970’s which offered hotel-like accommodations aside from being able to carry vehicles. When patronage weakened in the 1980’s due to the rise of other modes of transports that evolved into the “carferries” which is again utilitarian but more comfortable than the first generation of long-distance RORO’s that appeared in the 1960’s.

The Ferry Lilac already belonged to the “carferries” class when built and much like the New Miyako which became the SuperFerry 12 in the Philippines for they were built in the same year but Ferry Lilac was much bigger than the New Miyako. When completed in July of 1984, Ferry Lilac was the largest RORO-passenger ship existing in Japan. She was assigned the Maizuru-Otaru route that passes through the Sea of Japan in the western seaboard of that country. As a “carferry”, although she still had suite rooms and other high class rooms, the emphasis was already on food and restaurants, live entertainment and shows and on game halls. Her capacity was 554 passengers but after remodeling that increased to 788 passengers. Her design and equipment were supposedly of the latest of the period being the “ultimate carferry” then.

The Ferry Lilac‘s design philosophy followed what was the naval design thinking then. Japan researchers determined that the swells of the open seas of Japan has an average of 140 to 145 meters between crests and so they suggested that the length of the liners be greater than that. The belief was that the ship would be able to ride between two crests and such will not pitch too much. However, it seems that was a naive assumption because after the ship’s bow rose with the coming swell the bow will then sink after the swell passed the center of the ship. In Youtube, there are videos of ship bow that appears to be submarining into the sea (of course, it will rise again). This phenomenon also happens to all kinds of ships including container ships, bulkers, military ships and other kind of ships in the heavy swells of the open seas.

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Photo by Joel Bado

The second Ferry Lilac was tall and she had high sides and the superstructure encompasses the whole ship. The philosophy behind the high sides is it serves as a protection against big waves including rogue waves and in case the ship listed she will not take in water easily hence forestalling capsizing. That was proven in later cases like the Ariake (which was hit by a rogue wave) and the Cougar Ace which did not immediately sink even though their sides were already lying in the water. I do not know if the design philosophies mentioned in this paragraph and the previous one weighed on the decision to risk her in a typhoon later. I heard her company was very confident in her ability to survive heavy seas as supposedly these big “carferries” were designed to survive seas generated by tropical cyclones of 120-130kph center wind strength.

The second Ferry Lilac was built by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI) in Aioi shipyard in Japan in 1984 and had the permanent ID IMO 8323161. Her dimensions were 192.9 meters by 29.4 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 18,268 tons. This later rose to 23,824 in gross tonnage (GT) with a net tonnage (NT) of 16,040. Its DWT (deadweight tonnage) was 7,670. The ferry was big but was not really built for speed unlike the big ferries of Japan in the previous decade as her design speed was only 21.5 knots. The power comes from SEMT-Pielstick engines that develops only 26,400 horsepower.

The ferry was released from Japan in 2004 after twenty years of service and went to Sulpicio Lines Inc. There was minimal refitting and there was no change in the superstructure and most works were done just in Cebu port. The refitting were mainly on how the facilities of the ship will conform to local conditions like the provision of an Economy Class and its corresponding Economy restaurant. Otherwise, the facilities and comforts of the ship were already more than enough as with the space for passengers. In the period of her arrival, passenger load of the liners was already declining and so there was no longer any pull to greatly increase the passenger capacity which was just limited to 1,992, a far cry from the 3,912 of the Princess of the Orient which was similar to her in size.

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Photo from Wakanatsu

When Princess of the Stars was fielded she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines vice the Princess of the Universe. As flagship, she did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week. Sailing, she usually catches the attention of observers for her sheer size. Docked in Manila or Cebu, she simply dwarfed the other ferries and with her height she simply towered above the other ferries. But unlike what others may expect, she was not led by the most senior captain of Sulpicio Lines. Others declined because they know handling a ship that big is more demanding. Looked from an angle, ships of these size were not really designed for Philippine waters. That size might have been demanded when passenger demand was still strong but not in the new millennium and Princess of the Stars might just be part a showcase. More kindly, she can also be looked as the replacement of the big and luxurious Princess of New Unity which was sold to breakers that same year.

The Princess of the Stars did not sail long, however. Sailing on the night of June 20, 2008 for Cebu, she failed to stop and seek shelter unlike two ships of Aboitiz Transport System which dropped anchor and sought shelter in Puerto Galera because of a coming typhoon. The Princess of the Stars simply sailed on when the evening news already warned of Typhoon “Frank” that will pass the northern coast of Leyte on a collision course with the Princess of the Stars (she left Manila at 8pm and the evening news was 6:30pm). The expected strength then of the typhoon was some 120-130kph which was theoretically within the capacity of the ship to handle. Was the voyage a test case of her strength in Philippine typhoons?

I always wondered about the bravado of the Princess of the Stars. Normally before when there was a storm in Eastern Visayas and the ship wanted to still sail to Cebu or northern Mindanao they take the southern route which means from Verde Island Passage the ship turns to Tablas Strait instead of pursuing the route passing through the Sibuyan Sea. The ship will then sail through the seas off the western side of Panay island and then turn to Panay Gulf and round Negros island on its southern part and then head northward to Cebu port. The wind and swells will be strong in Sulu Sea but the ship will be farther from the eye of the typhoon and after rounding the southwest tip of Panay island the wind and swells will already be at the stern of the ship and the rocking will be less. I have been aboard such detours in the past and I know this custom.

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Photo by Rodney Orca

Tucked in and sheltered by an island, the wind and swells will be moderated and not that much felt in a ship. It is after venturing in the open when the roughness of the sea begins. In the past, our ships has learned to use the cover of the islands if they are not seeking shelter. Even small islands like the Romblon islands provide a measure of cover.

By next morning, Typhoon “Frank” was stronger (it was already developing more strength that night) and its strength was already 165kph, a strength that is not to be messed with. Well, ships going from Australia and the Philippines that pass through our eastern seaboard don’t drop anchor and seek shelter. But they know how to distance themselves from the typhoon. This can be verified through AIS. Where a typhoon is passing the area is clear of ships. Some stop, some take a detour and some seek shelter and drop anchor. Princess of the Stars was in the vicinity of a typhoon and in fact was in a collision course but did neither of the three evasive actions mentioned previously. She simply sailed on until she was already in the eye of the typhoon. Actually, that was a feat of seamanship – to sail into the eye of a strong typhoon. Few can do that (restated, only fools do that).

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Taken from http://www.typhoon2000.com

But the ship did not survive and capsized off the southeast coast of Sibuyan island in an inverted position and stuck in a reef which saved the ship from sinking completely. However, that was no use to most of the passengers and crew of the ship as only 54 survived while 814 were dead or missing and some were washed far away.

Like the Dona Paz tragedy, the Princess of the Stars sinking caused national and international outcry and shamed Sulpicio Lines to heights greater than the Dona Paz tragedy where there was still dispute then who was really at fault in the collision that torched and sank Dona Paz. In the Princess of the Stars case there was no one to blame except for Sulpicio Lines. The company tried to blame the government forecasting agency PAGASA but that did not gain traction. One thing was sure in the accident, the ship was not using state-of-the-art forecasting services like INMARSAT which was the first one to declare that the missing Malaysian Airlines jet MH370 veered south and was lost in the Indian Ocean (when that was not their function or service).

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Credits: NAMRIA and PDI

The backlash of this tragedy was so great it also sank the passenger service of Sulpicio Lines. Now they are forever barred from engaging in passenger liner shipping. And until now they are still haunted by suits. They were even forced to rename their company into the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC).

With the sinking, the Philippine government also tightened regulations on sailings during storms. Now, no Philippine ship can sail when the winds reach 60kph or even less at times. Above that only foreign ships are still sailing our waters.

And that is the ironic thing I find now. Imagine only foreign ships can sail our waters when the wind blows. All because of the Princess of the Stars.

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Photo by Britz Salih

Note: I don’t know who wrote the Wikipedia article of Princess of the Stars. It has errors in the specifications of the ship.