Container Ships Also Sink Our Liners

In the past, before 1980, there was no conflict between the our liners and the container ships. First, container ships did not exist before the late 1970’s. Second, before that time, general cargo ships were not many as it is our liners that were mainly carrying the inter-island cargo that should be transported fast and were not in bulk. That was the reason why even though our production and the number of people were not yet as high like today, there were so many liners existing with as high as 90 liners at its very peak.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the early 1970’s, the Sea Transport Company came into existence. What was notable for this new company is they offered regular express cargo service to Mindanao which means a direct service and aside from loose cargo, their ships were able to carry small container vans which were non-standard as in they were offering 8-foot containers which they themselves designed (it was rectangular in shape). In due time, they also shifted to standard container vans and they fielded pure container carriers.

In 1976, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation converted one of their general cargo ships, the P. Aboitiz into a container carrier. Conversion like this was not difficult because only some internal structures need to be modified so a container van can be slot in and that also means modifying the holds and the hatches. The grabs of the booms also have to be modified by a bit so it can handle a container van.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1978, containerization was already in full swing when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation added more container ships and William Lines Incorporated followed suit. The next year, in 1979, Sulpicio Lines Incorporated also joined the bandwagon to be followed in the next year by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation which had already split from its merger with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc (CAGLI). Negros Navigation Company also joined this new paradigm in 1980. In 1981, Sweet Lines Incorporated also followed suit but they used their old company name Central Shipping Corporation. Among the major liner companies then, it was only Compania Maritima which did not join this new paradigm.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

These new container services offered direct sailings as in there were no intermediate ports. With direct service, the container ships might be a little slower than the liners (except for the fast cruisers) but their transit times were not worse than the liners (except to Cebu) because they don’t lose time in an intermediate port or ports. With the speed, convenience, security (no pilferage), lack of damage and contamination, soon the shippers were already shifting en masse to the new container services.

In the liner crisis of 1980 when many liners were deactivated and laid up, it seems the main cause of that was the emergence and immediate success of the container ships and container shipping. Maybe the liners suddenly found they don’t have enough cargo and hence they can’t maintain the old sailing schedule and from the outside it looked like that suddenly there was a “surplus” of bottoms (actually the liners complained of that).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In December 1979, the first RORO liner, the Dona Virginia of William Lines came. This RORO and those that came after her were capable of carrying container vans especially the XEU or 10-foot container vans that can be loaded aboard by the big forklifts. Soon even the fast cruiser liners were also carrying container vans atop their cargo holds especially at the bow of the ship. Some can also carry container vans on a platform in the stern.

Locally, I did not see a new paradigm take hold as fast as container shipping. The ROROs even took longer to be the new paradigm. In containerization, there was even a rush to convert general cargo ships into container ships. All the “new” container ship of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation were converts at the start. The other container shipping companies bought general cargo ships from Japan and converted them into container carriers. Our first container ships looked like general cargo ship unlike the modern container ship which does not look like general cargo ships (and nor can they handle loose cargo).

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In just a little over a year William Lines had 5 container ships (Gorio Belen research in the National Library)

The emergence of the RORO liners even pushed containerization faster as that new kind of ferry is ready-made not only for vehicles or rolling cargo but also for container vans, wheeled in atop chassis (which means atop trailers) or not (if not wheeled then big forklifts “wheeled” them in). There were not yet reach stackers in the early years of our containerization to handle the container vans.

In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the liners can still hold off the container ships. The reason was there were no budget airlines yet (Philippine Airlines fares then were really stiff) and there were no intermodal buses yet in the bulk of the islands (it was only strong in Eastern Visayas, their pioneer area). And liners can still pack in the passengers (even up to “overloading” or overbooking point) because people has already learned how to travel and there was a great push for migration to Metro Manila (which later led to the overcrowding of this metropolis).

However, when budget airlines and the intermodal buses came in droves, the passengers of the liners dropped. The 2,000 to 3,000 passenger capacity slowly became “too big” and hence the national shipping companies no longer fielded liners with capacities such as this in the new millennium. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also tried to reduce passenger capacity and increase cargo capacity by converting some of their liners to have two decks for rolling cargo like what they did in SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 2.

Superferry 12

Photo by Edison Sy

Can the liners compete with container ships when the passenger demand dipped? The answer is a plain “No way”. Liners usually have more than three times the horsepower of a local container ship (and it is single-engined which means less spare parts are needed) and yet the local container ship usually have three times the container capacity of a RORO liner. This even became more pronounced when the regime of high oil prices came in the first decade of this millennium. Per fuel prices alone, the container ships can carry each container van much cheaper than what a liner can.

Container vans also do not need the amenities needed by the passengers. Moreover, it does not need the service expected of the passengers which need to be fed and be given more than decent accommodations plus some entertainment. Because of that, the crewing needs of a liner is far higher than that of a container ship. All of those means more expense of the part of the liner company. Besides, a RORO liner is more expensive than a container ship for the same size and its insurance is higher.

Ever since the 1980’s, even when the passenger demand was still great, the national shipping companies were earning more from cargo than their passengers. That is true even today when 2GO admits that almost 70% of their revenues are from cargo (and to think under their roof is SuperCat which widens the passenger revenues). Definitely their investment for liners is greater than their cargo ships. Maybe it was only loyalty to their passengers and passenger shipping why they were not quitting this segment. Maybe it is also because of inertia which means just keeping doing the old things.

Lorcon Dumaguete assisted by tugs

If we look at the recent years we can see that for every liner acquired at least 7 container ships were acquired and this is even a conservative estimate. If we look at the last 10 years starting from 2006, only 11 liners came to our shores and that includes the 3 Cebu Ferries, two of which are still used as overnight ships although already converted into small liners. Meanwhile, MARINA registered 80 or more newly-arrived container ships in the same period. These are the container ships of Oceanic Container Lines, Sulpicio Lines/Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, NMC Container Lines, Solid Shipping Lines, Negros Navigation/Caprotec Corporation/2GO, MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP), Moreta Shipping Lines, Meridian Cargo Forwarders, Seaview Cargo Shipping Corporation, Escano Lines/Loadstar Shipping Company and West Ocean Lines and Transport acquired in the last ten years. Now how many container lines is that compared to a sole passenger liner company?

There are few liners sailing now and all are under just one company which is 2GO (since Romblon Shipping Lines has already quit). Meanwhile, container ships are still mushrooming and more container shipping companies are joining the field. Even 20 years ago there were already more container ships than liners. Now the container ships are already outstripping the liners in number. And the trend holds true year after year.

The question is why? Well, the simple answer is the shipping companies won’t invest in liners as it does not make sense. More revenues can be earned from container shipping at less investment with less hassles from regulations and supply needs (like the food needed by the passengers). So why would they enter passenger liner shipping? Better “pets” like containers vans rather than people like the passengers who can raise a ruckus and if the ship sinks then goodbye to all the advertising and service spent for the goodwill. If a cargo ship sinks, the uneducated public and the media almost won’t mind at all.

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A Cargo RORO LCT by Asian Shipping Corporation

If cargo is the bread and butter of shipping it will now go to the container lines because they can actually offer the lower shipping rates. If not it will go to the intermodal trucks which has even lower rates. And arriving now recently are the Cargo RORO LCTs which carry container vans (even from Manila) like those of Roble Shipping Incorporated, Ocean Transport and Asian Shipping Corporation. This new paradigm can offer even lower rates than the container ships.

Sometimes it looks like liners are already passe. But I don’t want them to go because I prefer them over planes and the intermodal buses are sometimes too tiring especially those who are no longer young.

Will the liners survive? Now, that is one question I would not like to answer.

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The Last Liner of Sulpicio Lines

Sulpicio Lines had a journey of being the biggest passenger shipping company in the Philippines to having no more passenger ships in the end, driven by sinkings with great casualties on years ending with “8” which was supposedly “lucky” to the Chinese but which ended up disastrously for them. In 1988, their “Dona Marilyn”, a former replacement flagship as “Dona Ana” sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon in the Samar Sea with the loss of hundreds of lives. In 1998, the “Princess of the Orient”, their flagship sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon off Cavite and again with the loss of hundreds of lives. And in 2008, the “Princess of the Stars”, their flagship and the biggest-ever liner in the inter-island routes, also sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon near Sibuyan island, with great loss of lives too that raised a public and international howl. Topping it all was the sinking of the “Dona Paz”, a former flagship as “Don Sulpicio” after a collision with a tanker near Mindoro where the ship was engulfed by the resulting flames. This happened in Christmas season of 1987 and it was considered by many as the greatest peacetime maritime disaster ever but the knowledgeable know the casualty count in that was greatly just bloated.

This series of great casualties in sinkings and the great howl created by the sinking of “Princess of the Stars” resulted in a suspension of their passenger fleet with strict conditions for their comeback in passenger shipping. From suspension, only two of their passenger ships were able continue regular sailing, one in the Manila-Cebu route, the “Princess of the South” and one in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro-Nasipit-Jagna routes, the “Princess of the Earth”. This is the story of the last-ever liner of Sulpicio Lines, the “Princess of the South”, an unlikely ship to be the last-ever liner and “flagship” of Sulpicio Lines.

When “Princess of the South” arrived in the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 2005, she was not that much heralded, not that highly thought of especially since she was just medium-sized among our liners and middling in speed and accommodations. She came to take over the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos route for the company which was long held by the “Princess of the Pacific” but that ship had a serious grounding incident off Panay island in 2004 where she was declared a complete total loss (CTL). Her temporary replacement, the “Princess of the World”, meanwhile, had a fire in 2005 from which she was never repaired again. Another Sulpicio ship that had a route to General Santos City, the “Princess of Unity” also gave up and she was sent to the breakers in 2004 because one of her four engines was already very defective. That was the backgrounder from which the “Princess of the South” was fielded. Maybe it was a little daunting to replace those liners and maybe her name was a reflection of her route.

The “Princess of the South” was known as the “New Katsura” in Japan and she was owned by the Osaka Kochi Express Ferry. She was built by the Naikai Zosen Corporation in their Setoda yard in Japan and she was completed in April of 1981. A steel-hulled ship, she had two masts, two angled funnels and three passenger decks. She had a bulbous stem, a square-end stern and a quarter stern ramp on the starboard side. With a truck deck and a mezzanine for sedans, she was a RORO ship capable of carrying about 100 TEUs.

The “New Katsura” measured 141.3 meters length over-all by 22.7 meters breadth with a gross tonnage (GT) of 6,773 and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 3,249 tons. She was equipped with two IHI-SEMT Pielstick engines that had a total of 15,600 horsepower which was enough to give her a top speed of 19.5 knots when new. Her keel was laid down in 1980, that is why her permanent ID was IMO 8017865. Interestingly, she was built near a cargo ship ordered by the Philippine Government which was destined for Galleon Shipping, the “Galleon Agate”.

In coming here in 2005, Sulpicio Lines no longer tampered with the superstructure in her refitting. That time it was already obvious passenger patronage of shipping was already declining and the era of 2,000+ passenger liners was already over and so she had a passenger capacity of just 1,300. Maybe Sulpicio Lines was also rushing then to fill the void to their General Santos City route that they did not even bother to put scantlings at the stern of the ship to increase the cubic capacity of the ship. The cruising speed of the ship here was only about 18 knots which was about average for our liners and that was just about the same as the speed of the liner “Princess of Paradise” which she replaced.

From my analysis of the ship, it seems they converted the mezzanine for sedans into the open-air Economy section of the ship. The stern portion of this deck remained for loading of sedans here (brand-new ones for car dealers down south). The Tourist section was converted from the cabin for truck drivers in Japan. The Economy De Luxe section was on a deck higher of that and it could have been a big cabin for tatami accommodations in Japan. There were a lot of cabins for the Tourist De Luxe in the uppermost passenger deck and it seems those were formerly cabins too in Japan. First Class Cabins and Suites were in the forward section of this deck ahead of the middle of the ship.

This liner had a small First Class restaurant called “The Good View”. It was no longer as opulent as the First Class restaurants of our past great liners and it was just small. Here the usual smorgasbord eat-all-you-can treat of Sulpicio Lines applied. The Second Class restaurant for the Tourist passengers was just about okay in size but its furnishings were better than the First Class restaurant. This had the name “Mandarin Sky” which to the uninitiated might sound as the higher class restaurant. The Economy restaurant called “The Terrace” was an open-air dining place at the stern that seemed a little small too and so queues formed. It had simple tables and benches but being laminated it looked more presentable. It was also here where the ordinary crew members dine. Like the previous Sulpicio Lines tradition, it was “rice-all-you-can” here which means “unlimited rice”. The ship also had a canteen that operated from dawn to midnight and it is located near the partial-deck for the sedans. It was always full of passengers because that was where the charging stations for cellphones were located.

This ship was one of the few among local liners that had an escalator. This leads to the main lobby cum front desk area. Near that was a bar-lounge and behind that was the Second Class restaurant. The ship had many lounges but that did not include the First Class and Second Class restaurants (because it was closed when not meal time) except for the Economy restaurant which was always open. There was also a playground in the sun deck and that top deck also served as a promenade/observation deck although its area was rather small. This was because of the new ISPS rules governing ship security. And so the bridge and the side of the crew accommodations at the top were no longer accessible by the public.

Other amenities included a chapel and a wishing well, if the those can be called as amenities. However, they served as welcome attractions and actually the chapels seats were a good way to have a seat if one got tired in the sun deck as they were just adjacent. There were also a spa and a beauty parlor for relaxation and grooming needs. Below the escalator there were videos and an arcade for games. Over-all, taking a walk around the ship was not really tiring (and one can’t say that about our great liners of the past). One reason is the passenger areas did not really extend much further than the funnels of the ship and hence the passenger decks were rather short.

Her original route was Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas (General Santos City) which she sailed once a week. Her departures and arrivals were:

MANILA

TUESDAY

10:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

5:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

3:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 PM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

5:00 AM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

6:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

6:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

4:00 PM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

6:00 AM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

12:00 NN

MANILA

MONDAY

7:00 AM

That was a schedule that had plenty of lay-overs which was good for the engines which can then rest and be checked. The crew and the passengers can then make visits or even make “free tourism” (tour the city where the ship is docked). She was successful in that southern route and her size was just fit. And by the way, she was almost the same size as the “Princess of the Pacific” (137.5 meters x 20.2 meters) that she replaced there but that ship has a far higher passenger capacity than her at 2,286. Incidentally, these two ships had the same engines although the SEMT Pielstick engines of the “Princess of the Pacific” were made by NKK (Nippon Kokan KK) of Japan.

She suddenly stopped sailing this route when Sulpicio Lines got suspended after the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars” in June of 2008. She was then just in her third year of sailing in this route. When Sulpicio Lines was partially allowed to sail again, she was transferred to the Manila-Cebu route to take the place of the “Princess of the Stars”. Passenger patronage of ships had already declined then in general but Sulpicio Lines was hit harder. It seems only those who understood her were still sailing with her and so maybe a smaller ship with a smaller engine made more sense.

As a come-on, her fares were very low. If purchased direct from the company, the Saver (Economy) class was just P867, Saver Plus (Economy Deluxe) was P967, Tourist was P1,067, Tourist De Luxe was P1,167, Cabin w/o T&B was 1,267, Cabin with T&B was P1,367 and the room rate for Suite was P3,135. In Cebu, the terminal fee and the aircon shuttle bus chartered by Sulpicio Lines were even free. But when I sailed with her in 2014 I felt sad. I can feel an era was closing and there was no glee in the crew and they were no longer young. I heard “Princess of the South” was for sale and the crew knows it. It was an open secret that Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (the new name of Sulpicio Lines) was getting out of passenger shipping.

I heard there were negotiations between a Cebu regional shipping company and Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation for the possible purchase of the “Princess of the South”. In the end, to the sadness of many, the deal fell through and “Princess of the South” was instead bought by Bangladeshi ship breakers. Subsequently, she left Cebu simply as the “Princess” one day in October of 2014. Her demolition began in Chittagong on November 9, 2014.

A few months after she was sold, Sulpicio Lines or PSACC was forever barred by the maritime regulatory agency MARINA from sailing passenger ships. The then-Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications expressed hope some others will enter the liner industry. But to knowledgeable observers they know that is an empty hope.

As the Americans say, “the medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”.

The Soya Maru No. 10

The Soya Maru series of ships from Higashi Nippon Ferry of Japan is one of the most numerous that came to the Philippines to serve as local ferries. Many of these went to Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI). Among these are Soya Maru No. 1 which became the Filipinas Dumaguete in 1993. Another is Soya Maru No. 2 which became the Filipinas Dinagat in 1994. Still another is Soya Maru No. 5 which became the Filipinas Dapitan in 1999. Recently, another Soya came for Cokaliong, the Eins Soya, originally a ship too of Higashi Nippon Ferry which  will become the Filipinas Jagna. Mr. Chester Cokaliong, the CSLI owner said in media they were lucky this ship was offered to them. Maybe it was this old connection that made it possible. Anyway, the Japanese might have been impressed with Cokaliong Shipping which has a track record of maintaining and loving well graying ships. All of the Soya Maru ships are still sailing reliably for Cokaliong Shipping.

Not all Soya Maru ships that came here went to Cokaliong Shipping Lines, however. Even earlier than them, Soya Maru No. 8 went to Sweet Lines Incorporated in 1989 as the Sweet Pride. Upon bankruptcy of Sweet Lines this ship went to Viva Shipping Lines in 1994 to become the Viva Penafrancia 5. In 1990, Soya Maru No. 7 went direct to Viva Shipping Lines to become the Viva Sta. Maria. The two ships became workhorses of Viva Shipping Lines until the bankruptcy of that shipping company. The ships then went to local shipbreakers which was a shame and a waste since they were still good ships then.

One of the Soya Marus, the No. 10, first went to the newest branch of Gothong, the Gothong Southern Shipping Lines when she arrived in the country. And this ship is the focus of this article.

The Soya Maru No. 10 was a ship built in 1984 in Japan by the Naikai Zosen Corporation in their Taguma shipyard and she was given the ID IMO 8312930. The first two numbers of that ID varied with the Date of Build (DOB) because her keel was laid down in Oct. 14, 1983. She was launched in February 2, 1984 and completed on April 17, 1984.

The ship has a steel hull, a bulbous stem and a transom stern and two masts and a single passenger deck. Equipped with bow and stern ramps and a car deck, she is a RORO (Roll-On, Roll-off) ship. She is equipped with two Daihatsu marine diesel engines with a total of 3,200 horsepower driving two propellers. Her original top speed was 18 knots.

As to dimensions, her Length Over-all (LOA) is 70.2 meters and her Breadth is 14.5 meters. Her original Gross Tonnage (GT) was 1,554 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was then 702.

In 1997, she was sold to Hanil Express Company of South Korea where she became the second Hanil Car Ferry No. 1. Incidentally, the first Hanil Car Ferry No. 1 also came to the Philippines. She was the Asia South Korea of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. After ten years in South Korea the second Hanil Car Ferry No. 1 was sold to Gothong Southern Shipping Lines. In this company, she was renamed the Dona Rita Sr., the first ferry of that new shipping company.

In modification, a second passenger deck was added to her which brought her GT to 2,019 and her Net Tonnage (NT) to 1,347. Her DWT rose to 807 and her authorized passenger capacity is 650. Her speed was however down to 16.5 knots.

The lay-out of Dona Rita Sr. is basic. All the Economy accomodations are located in the upper passenger deck. In the lower passenger deck are located the Tourist section and forward of that are the Cabins. The passengers board at the stern and it is there that the front desk (back desk?) is located. On the deck right above that is the restaurant. Both were beautifully done and meals on the restaurant was good although not free. However, the ship lacked lounges and other amenities. The built was more of that of an overnight ferry. The crew, however, was snappy.

Upon completion of modifications, she was first assigned the Manila-Roxas City-Palompon-Cebu route. This route was considered “lucky” in the Alfred Gothong branch, the Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. or CAGLI. It was because it heralded the revival of their shipping fortunes in the 1980’s after the final split with Lorenzo Shipping in the late 1970’s.

However, this second time around was not lucky for the company. I knew it would not be since things have already changed from twenty years ago. While there were no intermodal buses and trucks before in that route, in 2007 the conditions were different. The intermodal trucks and buses were already dominant in Panay and Leyte islands in 2007. In fact, Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) earlier withdrew from that exact route because they cannot cope with the intermodal challenge. To Cebu, meanwhile the Dona Rita Sr. was heavily outclassed by the competition.

They did not last in that route. She then tried the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route. In early fielding she turned on the speed and she had a reputation for an arrival before daybreak. Being smaller and with less amenities compared to competition, maybe she was then seeking an edge. In that route she had a weekly diversion from Cagayan de Oro to Jagna, Bohol.

When Gothong Southern acquired the Our Lady of Good Voyage of Cebu Ferries Corporation to become the Dona Conchita Sr., the Dona Rita Sr. was shunted to the Cebu-Nasipit route with a diversion too to Jagna. However, with simultaneous departure with the Princess of the Earth of the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation or PSACC, she was marginalized early in that route since the PSACC ship was more established and leaves earlier. I was able to ride her once in that route and I felt she wouldn’t last. There were too few passengers left after the Princess of the Earth left port. I was even wondering why she just not do a Cebu-Jagna-Nasipit route with an alternate Cebu-Maasin-Nasipit run since she has the speed anyway for an intermediate port of call. Some shipping lines did those route before in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

In 2011, Gothong Southern heeded the writing on the wall  and stopped passenger operations. They forthwith laid up their two passenger ships in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, Cebu. One after the other, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. or TASLI acquired the two ferries starting with the Dona Rita Sr. In her new company the ship was renamed to Trans-Asia 8.

With TASLI she was further spruced up in the accommodations (as Dona Rita Sr. her aircon in Tourist was weak; her Economy, however, was already improved before the sale). As a Trans-Asia ship, she was assigned to various routes starting with the Cebu-Iloilo route. In effect, she became the replacement for the sunk Asia Malaysia of TASLI. Later she was assigned the Tagbilaran-Cagayan de Oro route when TASLI sold the Trans-Asia (1) assigned there. Still later, she was also assigned the Cebu-Masbate route when Asia Indonesia was sold to Navios Shipping Lines. Recently, she was used by TASLI in the opening of their Cebu-Iligan route. And sometimes she is assigned in other routes too like the Cebu-Ozamis and Cebu-Cagayan de Oro routes.

Although relatively small as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry, Trans-Asia 8 is still a very reliable and decent ship. To me, it looks like her sailing days will still be long, knock on wood.

M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

The MV St. Thomas Aquinas was a former 2GO liner that was rammed on the side by the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) just south of Mactan Channel near Lauis Ledge lighthouse on the night of August 16, 2013. She sank in a matter of minutes because the PSACC ship feared being a sinking casualty and she pulled back allowing water to rush inside the hull of St. Thomas Aquinas (this is what usually happens when there is an underwater gash in the hull). A total of 137 persons died in the collision and a large oil spill affecting Mactan island resulted. St. Thomas Aquinas was better known locally as SuperFerry 2 and she is included in the book “The Great Passenger Ships of the World” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose (the original title was in German), a book where the Philippine Ship Spotter Society (PSSS) was a contributor.

M/V Superferry 2 folio ©John Aringay

St. Thomas Aquinas started life as the Ferry Sumiyoshi of Meimon Car Ferry K.K. of Kitakyushu, Japan. She was built in the Onomichi yard of Onomichi Zosen and she was the sister ship of Ferry Hakozaki which was better known locally as SuperFerry 5 and later as the St. Joan of Arc of 2GO (this ship is still sailing). Ferry Sumiyoshi’s keel was laid on August 1, 1972, launched on December 19, 1972 and completed on March 20, 1973. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 138.6 meters and her Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP) was 128.0 meters with a Breadth of 22.15 meters. Originally, her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 7,270 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 2,596.
Ferry Sumiyoshi was powered by two Mitsubishi-MAN diesels (MAN engines built under license by Mitsubishi in Japan) of a combined 15,200 horsepower which gave her a service speed of 19 knots. She carried the international ID IMO 7304663 and she was a RORO-Passenger (ROPAX) Ferry. The ship originally had one and a half passenger decks, two and a half cargo decks, a full bridge deck and vehicle ramps at the bow and at the stern. Her original passenger capacity was 900 and she was first fielded in the Osaka-Shinmoji route in Japan.

Ferry Sumiyoshi ©Fakta om Fartyg

In April of 1992 she came to the Philippines to become the Aboitiz SuperFerry 2 (also SuperFerry II) of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation where she was converted into a 4-deck multi-day passenger liner originally serving the Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route (displacing the SuperFerry 1 in the latter port of call). She was the first liner fielded again by Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the Manila-Cebu route after the shipping company gave up on that route for paucity of suitable liners (they were however serving the Cebu-Leyte route).

Superferry 2 ©Britz Salih

As reclassified, she had a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 11,405, a DWT of 2,947 and a passenger capacity of over 2,643 divided into the following classes: Stateroom, Cabin (for 2 and 4), Tourist, Deluxe and Economy. Adding weight her depth rose to 8.2 meters and her service speed dropped to 17.5 knots which meant a transit time of 22 hours in the Manila-Cebu route. Having a folding rear mast she can pass under the Mactan bridge. Her car deck can accommodate 108 trailers (she loads “CHA-RO” or container vans mounted on trailers and parked separate from the tractor heads).

Superferry 2 ©Gorio Belen

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not provide free meals to the passengers then but the fares were a little lower compared to competition to compensate for that. A passenger then will have his choice of what to eat. One orders meal a la carte in the cafeteria that was centrally located which was open from early morning to just past midnight. Passengers can also lounge here and while away time and various drinks can be ordered any time. The first class passengers have their separate restaurant. There was also a disco-karaoke and a coffee shop.

The ship featured a lounge for upper class passengers and a lobby and front desk for everyone along with other amenities and offerings like a video game arcade, a kiosk and books/magazines and board games for rent and a beauty salon. The ship sides were open and served as passageway and it also served as a viewing deck and smoking area. The sun deck of the ship also serves as a promenade area.

Superferry 2 interior ©Wakanatsu

On January 1, 1996 she passed on to the merger company William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and in the renaming of the ferries of the merged fleet she retained the same name as WG&A decided to use the SuperFerry brand with the lesser ferries branded the “Our Lady”, a brand from Gothong Shipping. Initially she held on to her same route but a little later she did other routes (but not the prime Cebu route). Then she was paired with SuperFerry 5 to do rotational routes and a little later more this pairing included the SuperFerry 9 (in rotational pairings WG&A matches the ferries in speed and size). Doing rotational routes that varied over time along with differing assignments and schedules were a WG&A trademark which was hard to track unless one monitors their advertisement in the dailies.

Superferry 2 in WG&A livery ©Wakanatsu

With the divestment of the Chiongbian and Gothong families in WG&A (with the notable exception of Bob Gothong), the company was renamed the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) in 2003. With sizable sell-off of ships (liners, overnight ferries and container ships), ATS found themselves lacking container capacity especially when they sold off SuperFerry 15, 16, 17 and 18. Part of their remedy aside from chartering container ships was to convert 4-deck liners into liners with only two passenger decks with two container decks. This halved the passenger capacity of the converted ships but almost doubled the container capacity. ATS thought this was the correct solution to declining passenger patronage and lack of container capacity (but later developments proved them wrong).

As converted, the passenger capacity of SuperFerry 2 dropped to only 904 with only two Staterooms and two Cabins. With some engine efficiency adjustments the service speed went up to 18.5 knots (with a maximum equaling her old 19 knots) and with only a few passengers the ship tended to be very cold at night especially when it is raining. The ship moreover became an all-airconditioned ship. Her Net Tonnage (NT) dropped to 5,869. As a two-passenger deck ferry there was much less space for passengers to roam and amenities and facilities were less. The dining area of the upper and lower classes became shared.

Superferry 2 ©Mike Baylon

Later on with the buy-out of Aboitiz Transport System by Negros Navigation using the China-ASEAN Fund loan in 2012 she passed on to the newly merged company 2GO. She was renamed as the St. Thomas Aquinas and she did the Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga and Manila-Cebu-Nasipit routes among other always-changing routes and schedules. In 2GO she was still speedy but with more emphasis put on the declining cargo and because of that like other ships in the fleet she tended to be late because of delayed departures waiting for cargo.

St Thomas Aquinas in 2GO livery. ©Mike Baylon

To make up for lost time because she was four hours late, she was speeding in the early night of August 13, 2013 in Hilutungan Channel and in rounding the southern coast of Mactan island. The area is notorious for radar scatter because of the ship facing land formation with hills, towers and plenty of buildings and vehicles. Also rounding Mactan island the radar won’t give an image of the ships exiting Cebu port and Mactan Channel. The early night too is the peak departure time of ships leaving Cebu. Nearing Lauis Ledge and the reefs of Cordova, Mactan and the narrows and shoals off Talisay, Cebu, the ship barreled into the narrowing shipping lane at over 16 knots when ships were expected to do 15knots or less in that area where the shipping line is curving like in a continuous arc.

At that time Sulpicio Express Siete with an ice-classed bow (reinforced as she was originally a Baltic Sea ship) was exiting Mactan Channel at slow speed. Meanwhile, Trans Asia 9 which was late in departure was catching up and asked permission to overtake on the right or starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete. The shallows of Talisay were looming ahead (a ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines made a mistake here and ended up high and dry). So Sulpicio Express Siete gave her a wide berth and moved to the middle of the channel and slowed down a bit as she will be veering right soon as she was headed in the direction of Dumaguete while Trans Asia 9 is headed to Cagayan de Oro.

While the gap between Sulpicio Express Siete and Trans Asia 9 was getting bigger, the late-running Oceanjet 8, a fastcraft of Ocean Fast Ferries speeding from Tagbilaran moved into the gap between the ships and went into the starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete which was not her correct lane and in violation of maritime rules of the seaway. This had the effect of delaying of the veering of Sulpicio Express Siete in her correct lane in a shipping line with divider without marking buoys (AIS showed that at the time of passing of Trans Asia 9 Sulpicio Express Siete was slightly to the left of the median).

After Oceanjet 8 passed and when Sulpicio Express Siete was veering into her lane a reckless maneuver was made – St. Thomas Aquinas sped up and tried to follow Oceanjet 8, a classic case of brinkmanship. Ships don’t slow down and can’t maneuver like cars and the reinforced bow of Sulpicio Siete scraped against the hull and the passenger ramp of St. Thomas Aquinas, cut it up to below the waterline near the stern and the engine room. In moments, St. Thomas Aquinas had a fatal wound and power was knocked out and complete darkness fell in St. Thomas Aquinas with the bow on Sulpicio Express Siete lodged inside the rear hull of the 2GO liner. Some passenger took advantage of this momentary coupling of the two ships and jumped to the bow of the container ship. They were among the luckier ones because in minutes it was obvious their liner was stricken with a mortal blow worse than the Italian liner Andrea Doria.

Timeframe of collision ©Marinetraffic.com/Jeth Casagan

While the Andrea Doria had a good design that limited water intrusion and which kept her afloat for many hours St. Thomas Aquinas was a RORO which lacked watertight doors and compartments. When Sulpicio Express Siete reversed screws and disengaged she immediately developed a dangerous list and she capsized within minutes not affording enough time for proper evacuation which was made more difficult by the darkness. Trans Asia 9 also did not come to the rescue unlike the French liner Ile de France which illuminated Andrea Doria and launched lifeboats to the rescue.

Immediately after the accident charges and counter-charges of fault and recriminations were hurled and mainly by 2GO and netizens were quick to blame PSACC, the former Sulpicio Lines. Their former bad reputation hurt PSACC’s case in the bar of public opinion and it was even made worse by the fact that it was their ship which rammed and sank the other and was beyond the median line initially. Almost to a man almost everybody was blaming PSACC except maybe PSSS and a few others including mariners who understand COLREG (Collision Regulations) which governs rules of the road at sea. A Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SBMI) made an investigation that drew mainly on eyewitness account which tend to be biased depending of which ship they were boarded. In PSSS we noted there was almost no use of AIS which is the ship’s transponder and St. Thomas Aquinas was visible because their MMSI module was active and that gave her location, direction, speed and identity along with other data. It was her AIS which said she was overspeeding and she crossed the bow of the PSACC ship, a maneuver not permitted unless the other ship gave permission (this was also established later by the official investigation report).

Damage on Sulpicio Express Siete ©John Cabanillas

After over a year, the Philippine body tasked with determining fault, the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) determined liabilities and this was affirmed by their supervisory body, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). It sidestepped a purely COLREG-based decision and instead looked at other technicalities. The result said the St. Thomas Aquinas was mainly at fault because it held that ships moving out of port have priority over incoming ships. The report also noted a collision could have been avoided if both ships slowed down especially since they are not in radio contact.

Up to now the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas still lay near the collision site and lays precariously by her side in a sea ledge like the Costa Concordia. The maritime authority has already decided that 2GO should remove her as she poses hazard to navigation. Meanwhile, the municipality of Cordova is pressing payment for damage to their mangroves and fishing ground due to the oil spill in the aftermath of the sinking. Victims are still seeking further compensation while the two captains directly involved in the collision remain suspended. The other ships involved were not called to bar to answer for their actions.

Pumping oil from the remains of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

Now, the liner St. Thomas Aquinas is just a memory but a bitter one at that especially for the victims who are not holding on to solid hopes as deadly maritime accidents in the Philippines take the courts up to over a generation to make a final decision.

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