When Polloc Port Lost

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Photo from REZA-ARMM

Many times a reader will read “Cotabato Port” when it comes to shipping and many of them will think of the great but now conflict-ridden city of Cotabato. They will not realize that the “Cotabato Port” referred to is actually the Polloc port in Parang town in Maguindanao province which is about kilometers from the city. The true Cotabato Port is actually a river port near the mouth of Cotabato River hence it is shallow and can just accommodate small and shallow-draft vessels.

So when ships became bigger, the government decided to develop a new port for Cotabato City but this was not located in the city but in the nearby town of Parang. Actually the port was between Cotabato City and Parang and its name is Polloc port and the national government promoted and supported it well.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the past, Polloc was a viable port when the roads in the region were still terrible. Sulpicio Lines and Aboitiz Shipping made good sailing there and they even had dedicated passenger-cargo ships and container ships to Polloc port. Sulpicio Lines used the Dona Marilyn (the former Dona Ana) which was a good fast cruiser liner then. They then fielded the RORO liner Cotabato Princess when it arrived and she served the route here well.

Aboitiz Shipping tried this route with a newly-fielded ship here, the SuperFerry 3, smaller that her fleetmates but more fit for this route. When the merged shipping company WG&A was formed a slew of ships served the route including the former William Lines flagship Dona Virginia and a host of ROPAXes including the very well-regarded SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8. The respected sisters SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 also served Parang port along with the Maynilad. Doesn’t that line-up tells one that Parang port and the Cotabato route was once good then?

1980 1022 Polloc Port

Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Of course Parang will not be as strong a port like Dadiangas or what is later known as Gensan. South Cotabato was able to develop agribusiness (think Dole) and a hog industry and that was what supported the port. Cotabato and Parang had no such equivalent especially since the area became conflict-ridden at the approach of the 1970’s and in the aftermath the area sank into a certain degree of lawlessness which is a deterrent for trade, investment and tourism.

When the conflict and lawlessness abated a little, Cotabato and Parang did not rise even though the government tried to pour in money and promoted Parang port especially when the SPDA (Southern Philippines Development Authority) was created. And the support continued under the banner of the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) and it tried to attract Malaysian businessmen and other businesses and promoted Polloc as a free port and ecozone.

Ironically, what doomed Polloc was actually the opening of two new highways, the Narciso Ramos Highway which connected to Malabang, Pagadian and a route to Marawi and Iligan or Ozamis and the paving of the old Sayre Highway which connected the area to Cagayan de Oro via Bukidnon. Where before a shipper will have to wait for the weekly ship, now he can truck his goods to Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis and the combination of the three means the availability of daily ships plus a shorter sailing time with a lower shipping cost. And for passengers there are many direct commuter vans now from Cotabato to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. They can just take the ship there and travel time and costs will be less. Conversely, when they arrive in those ports there will commuter vans waiting for them.

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Now there is no more liner to Parang and cargo ships and container ships are few although the regional government tries to promote it mightily. However, it does not rise because there are simply better alternatives in shipping out cargo or bringing it in. Long-distance cargo trucks from even Cebu already penetrate the area and the main point of departure is Cagayan de Oro. Davao or General Santos City can also be the entry point especially if the goods are from abroad and there is no problem in trucking in the goods to the Cotabato area (talking of the city and not the old province).

The experience is actually what some say that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is okay and good to open the Narciso Ramos Highway and the Sayre Highway to connect Central Mindanao to Western and Northern Mindanao but then the unintended consequence is the sinking of Cotabato and Parang port.

I just hope the oil facility invested in by the Malaysians in Parang will somewhat make up for the fall. Hopefully they will allow goods from Singapore to be brought in tariff free under the ASEAN Free Trade Zone (which in Philippine bureaucratic definition means a lot of restrictions since they never care to read the dictionary and there are vested interests hiding behind those restrictions and bureaucrats and politicians protecting them). But then the local Nestle operation will balk because Nestle products from Singapore actually lands cheaper in Zamboanga (and that is even with grease money).

Wither Parang? No, actually I don’t have a good idea. It will be another locality whose fate is dependent on decision makers in Manila even though they don’t know much of local or regional realities.

Federalism, anyone?

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The Last Stand of Compania Maritima

In the postwar years, Compania Maritima stressed routes going to southern and western Mindanao (because ships going to southern Mindanao dock in Zamboanga first). It was easy for them since they had liners bigger than former “FS” ships, a luxury not available to their competitors and they had more ships (which is needed since the route were long and takes time to come back). That period Compania Maritima was the biggest shipping company in the Philippines and half of their fleet were big ships. In terms of big ships, they then had the most in the country.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Most ships running the southern Mindanao routes were former “FS” ships which were once small cargo ships of the US Army in World War II. In those routes, Compania Maritima were using former passenger-cargo ships from Europe and there was a whale of a difference between those and the former “FS” ships. The extra space and speed matters a lot and smaller ships were simply more bouncy in inclement weather or when the monsoons are blowing hard.

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Their competitors William Lines and Go Thong were just using former “FS” ships in the route and in the case of the latter it was even using lengthened ex-”F” ships. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Co.) meanwhile has mixed ex-”FS” and ex-C1-M-AV1” ships in the southern Mindanao routes. In 1955, when Everett Steamship’s duo of brand-new luxury liners which were sister ships arrived, the Legazpi and the Elcano, PSNC withdrew the former “C1-M-AV1” ships in the Davao route (Everett SS was then operating through PSNC in partnership with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

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A former ex-“C1-M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Compania Maritima was dominant in the southern Mindanao routes because their ships were simply bigger, better and faster. Their only worthy competition were the Legazpi and Elcano but still their ships which were former European passenger-cargo ships were bigger than those and has more cargo capacity, an important feature then since more cargo meant more revenue.

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(Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

In those routes to the south, Compania Maritima followed what was in vogue or normal then, that is the ships pass so many intermediate ports (as in up to six) and Cebu or Iloilo will be one of them. The ships will then dock in other Visayan ports like Tagbilaran, Dumaguete or Pulupandan or northern Mindanao ports like Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis, among others. In the early ’70’s, Sweet Lines pioneered the route through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. But just the same their ships docked first in Visayas ports.

That was the reason why ships then took nearly two weeks to complete a voyage and two ships had to alternate in serving a route to southern Mindanao so a weekly schedule can be maintained. Most had Davao as end port and some had Gensan as end port. Those still going to Davao usually docked also in Gensan (it was called Dadiangas then). A few ships had Cotabato as the end port (it was actually the Polloc port in Parang, Cotabato).

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MV Dona Ana (Wikimedia Commons)

However, in 1976, the new paradigm, that of fast cruiser liners came also to Mindanao. Bringers of it were Sulpicio Lines with the Dona Ana and William Lines with the Manila City. These fast ships only took three days to Davao compared to the six days of the liners before. These new ships only had one intermediate stop, Cebu for Sulpicio Lines and Zamboanga for William Lines. Fast cruisers of that era meant a ship can do 18 knots sustained. These fast cruisers had prompt departures and usually they will arrive at the posted ETA.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Aside from the Dona Ana, Sulpicio Lines also introduced small passenger-cargo ships with direct Davao sailings and these ships only took five days for the voyage. In 1978, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liners Don Enrique and Don Eusebio to Southern Mindanao routes. Even with these fieldings, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines maintained their old ships with multiple intermediate ports which took six days and with two ships alternating. But passengers who can’t afford or who don’t want to take the plane suddenly has a faster and more luxurious passage. These moves of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines put a lot of pressure on the other operators.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

These new liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, being fast and taking fewer days forced changes in the sailings of the other companies. Sweet Lines then assigned three ships rotating to the Davao route and by using the shorter eastern seaboard route and with just one intermediate port was capable of reaching Davao in 4 days. Sweet Lines cannot match Sulpicio Lines and William Lines because they have no fast cruiser liners (they will try to match in 1983 when they acquired the fast RORO liner Sweet RORO 2).

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Photo credit: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Lorenzo Shipping Company tried a new tack. They simply dropped passenger service to Davao and offered direct cargo sailings (hence, their ships can almost match the sailing times of the Sulpicio and William fast cruisers). Aboitiz Shipping Corporation meanwhile had already dropped Davao and Gensan even before and their ships were sailing up to Pagadian only (which they will also relinquish and abandon southern Mindanao). The other liner companies were not involved in this battle like Escano Lines, Negros Navigation and the minor liner companies because they had no southern Mindanao nor western Mindanao routes even before.

Compania Maritima which like the others used doubling of ships to Davao or Gensan also used the approach of Sweet Lines, that is to triple the ships in a Davao route so their sailings time will be reduced to four days. Their ships are faster than Sweet Lines’ but although they pruned the number of intermediate port they really can’t bring it down to just one port (so they are not faster to Davao than Sweet Lines). By this time Compania Maritima was already using their best and fastest ships to the Davao route and their next echelon of ships were also doing the other southern Mindanao routes. With this tactic Compania Maritima had a very thin coverage of their old northern Mindanao and Eastern Visayas routes.

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The Compania Maritima flagship (Photo credits: Evening News and Gorio Belen)

If Compania Maritima thought they can hold fort with this tactic they were sadly mistaken. In 1978, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation boldly came back to the southern Mindanao routes with its container ships, a new paradigm in Philippine shipping and they were offering direct sailings which means no intermediate ports. With that they can offer a faster (than Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines) and more secure shipping of goods with less damage. William Lines and Sulpicio Lines, not to be outdone, matched this new offering of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation the next year and this was followed soon by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. Not to be left out was the new Sea Transport Company, a pure cargo company which offered direct container services to southern Mindanao even ahead of the national liner majors.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

As mentioned before, Sweet Lines also followed suit with a fast service to Davao with the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983. If Compania Maritima was also strong in Cebu cargo before, by this period the national liner majors also had direct and dedicated container ship sailings to Cebu. Cargo is actually the bread and butter of shipping and since Compania Maritima never invested in container ships in due time they were already badly outgunned. Their competition already had fast cruiser liners and it had containers ships too, both new paradigms that Compania Maritima never possessed and they were still stuck to the old cruisers and old way of sailing.

I don’t know if Compania Maritima ever thought of getting aboard the new paradigms. Whatever, events soon decided things for them. President Marcos’ grip on power was loosening, his health was deteriorating and soon Ninoy Aquino was gunned down in the airport in his return in 1983. Political crisis and financial crisis were soon raging in the land, the peso was sinking very fast and production and trade suffered. Even prime companies were tottering on the edge then because of crushing debt loads when lending from the banks was nearly impossible. In this period, even the local operations of the major car assemblers collapsed – Toyota, Ford, General Motors. Other big companies were closing shop too.

The next year Compania Maritima’s answer to the crisis became known to all. They simply ceased operations too like the motoring majors and soon their dual-citizen owners were on their way back to Spain. Compania Maritima’s ships were laid up but soon they were sold to the breakers one by one. By 1988, none of Compania Maritima’s ships were still existing.

And that was how the old and long No.1 in Philippine shipping ended its life.

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Compania Maritima building in Cebu

The Ferry Routes of Sulpicio Lines and the Assignments of Its Ships

Among the local liner shipping companies before, it was Sulpicio Lines which was known for an almost unvarying schedules and routes. For nearly 15 years until they were suspended from sailing by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) because of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, their schedules were almost the same. The only significant change was when the MV Princess of Unity arrived in the country in 1999 and Sulpicio Lines created an entirely new route for her, the Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas (General Santos City) route. But this route was permanently gone in 2005. For a time, Sulpicio Lines also gave MV Manila Princess a route similar to the MV Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route). But she did not last as they can never make it engines reliable enough.

With an unvarying route, Sulpicio Lines does not need to advertise in the national and local papers unlike her main competitor WG&A Philippines (later the Aboitiz Transport System or ATS) which always changed assignments and schedules. Passengers know which day there is a Sulpicio ship in their area and what is the hour of departure. They just go to the port as Sulpicio Lines does not practice the online booking system. The only failure would be then was if the scheduled ship is on drydock. However, if a suitable reserve ship is available, Sulpicio Lines will still run the route and schedule. And that was one of the functions of their MV Manila Princess then, to relieve ships going to the drydock.

Princesses

Folio credit: Ken Ledesma

The queen route of Sulpicio Lines was the Manila-Cebu route. This was the route where they field their flagship and that runs twice a week (so that means plenty of interport hours for the ship). Many of her passengers are still bound to the other islands including Mindanao and so they still transfer ships. Some of them do after shopping in SM Cebu or in Colon. Or some leave their belongings somewhere and go to Carbon Market. SM Cebu, Colon and Carbon are all just near Cebu port.

Conversely, some of the passengers of the ship going to Manila are from the other islands including Mindanao. Cebu Port is actually a great connecting port. In a hub-and-spoke model, Cebu Port is the hub and the routes emanating from her as the spokes.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

In these nearly 15 years, three ships served as the flagship holding the Manila-Cebu route. The first was the MV Princess of the Orient starting in 1993 when she arrived in the country. She replaced the old flagship which was the MV Filipina Princess. However, on 1998, Princess of the Orient sank in a storm off the coast of Cavite. The MV Princess of the Universe then replaced her on the route and she held the route until 2004 when MV Princess of the Stars arrived.

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Going back to a more distant past, it was in 1975 when Sulpicio Lines adopted an exclusive Manila-Cebu route in the mold of MV Sweet Faith and MV Cebu City when it fielded the MV Don Sulpicio came (this ship was more known by her latter name – MV Dona Paz of the sinking infamy). When MV Don Sulpicio was hit by a fire while sailing (and beached), the MV Dona Ana replaced her on the route (this ship was also more known by her latter name – MV Dona Marilyn of the foundering infamy near Maripipi island). When the MV Philippine Princess arrived in 1981 she took over the Manila-Cebu route until MV Filipina Princess displaced her in 1988.

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The next most important route for Sulpicio Lines in this period was the route held by the MV Princess of Paradise, the fastest liner in the country for about a decade or so. She held the Cagayan de Oro route and she sails to that port twice a week. One was a direct voyage and only taking 25 hours for the 512-nautical mile route. On the way back to Manila, she calls on Cebu. Her next voyage in the same week will be a one that will call first in Cebu and Nasipit before going to Cagayan de Oro. From Cagayan de Oro she will do a direct voyage to Manila.

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Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Josel Bado

The third most important route for the company during this time was the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route held by the big and former flagship MV Filipina Princess. This route has rough waters during the ‘amihan’ (the northeast monsoon) but it seems with her sailing ability she was just fit for this route. Being just run once a week she has long lay-overs in Cebu Port especially on her way back to Manila where she stays overnight. These long lay-overs was one of the characteristics of Sulpicio Lines and passengers appreciate this because they are given time to visit relatives and to shop. As for me, I welcome it as it gives me a chance for “free tourism” (as I don’t have to spend to reach the place and if I am already tired and sweaty I can go back to the ship and partake of its free meals, too).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route of Sulpicio Lines after this was the weekly Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route, a route that does not pass through Cebu but nevertheless calling on three regional centers of trade and commerce. In the Philippines, the routes passing through Iloilo are the next most important after the routes passing through Cebu. Three ships held this route for Sulpicio Lines. The first was the MV Princess of the Pacific. After she grounded on an islet off Antique in 2004 which resulted in comprehensive total loss (CTL), she was replaced by the MV Princess of the World. Later, when she was destroyed by fire the MV Princess of the South held this route. Except for MV Princess of the World, in terms of size, these ships were already a notch below the ships that served the first three routes, an indication of the relative difference of the central routes via Cebu and the western routes via Iloilo. Their speed too is also no longer in the 20-knot range of the ships in the first three routes (except MV Princess of the World).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

After the four come the relatively minor ships and routes of Sulpicio Lines (although the route held by MV Cotabato Princess does not look minor). And I will start first with that. MV Cotabato Princess held the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Actually, the liners from Manila does not dock in Cotabato Port which is a shallow river port. Instead, they dock in Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao, a significant distance away. This route has long lay-overs, too. Since there are plenty of marang, durian and lanzones in Zamboanga, enterprising passengers will bring in those fruits and sell to the passengers while sailing. It will be sold out by the time the ship is docking in Manila. So that there will be no restrictions they will also give the crew and the captain their shares. Estancia, meanwhile, is known for its abundant fish supply.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route after this was the weekly Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Cebu route. Upon reaching Ozamis, the ship still goes to Cebu and comes back the same day in the evening after the arrival. In this way, the Sulpicio Lines ship also serves as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ship but she has only a few passengers in this role. Since this route was a chopped version of the former route that still calls on Cagayan de Oro (dropped when MV Princess of Paradise arrived), she has two overnight lay-overs in Dumaguete which was nice. Adventurous passengers use that chance to roam the famous Dumaguete Boulevard. Two Sulpicio ferries served this route. The first was the old flagship MV Philippine Princess. When she burned in 1997 (in a drydock), the MV Princess of the Caribbean replaced her. Both ships are cruisers.

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I do not know the next most important route of Sulpicio Lines. All were weekly and all seems not to be priority routes. Here, the older and lesser ships of Sulpicio Lines were concentrated.

I might start with the near-parallel route of where MV Princess of Caribbean served. Incidentally, they depart Manila simultaneously. The ship on this route was the MV Dipolog Princess and from Manila it goes first to Tagbilaran, then Dipolog (actually Dapitan) before proceeding to Iligan and Cebu and she will retrace the route. Like the MV Princess of Caribbean she was also assigned an overnight Visayas-Mindanao route. She has even less passengers in this role. She has also long lay-overs but not overnight ones. This ship and route functioned as the ride of the Bol-anons in Lanao to their home province. This was not actually a strong route as the voyage takes too long and the ship was no longer at par with the good standards of the era. Many in Lanao just take the ferry to Cagayan de Oro and take the bus. That was also true for passengers from Manila.

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Photo credit: Joe Cardenas

I would rather next discuss the route to Palawan before discussing the routes that hook eastward. Sulpicio Lines has also the route to Puerto Princesa via Coron. It was the MV Iloilo Princess that was assigned there. But if there is a vacancy in the other routes, the ship has the tendency to leave Palawan and substitute. MV Iloilo Princess was also not that reliable as her engines were balky and I heard that only one chief engineer, the most senior, had a good feel for her engines. When MV Iloilo Princess burned in a shipyard in 2003 there was no replacement on the route any longer.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

The next route was a route that has permanence. It was the “longest” route in the company which means it had the most ports of call, a type which was a remnant of the routes of the past when express liners were just few, the roads were still bad and shipping companies try to call on most ports possible for increased revenues. This was the Manila-Masbate-Calubian-Baybay-Maasin-Surigao route. This was even the chopped version (it was up to Butuan in the old past) so it might be a surprise to some. Calubian was a port of call because of the emotional attachment of the owners to it (they started somewhere near there) although it has lost all significance. The MV Palawan Princess mainly held this route after she was displaced in the route to Ozamis. It had no airconditioned accommodations and the general arrangement plan was much like an ex-FS ship although she was bigger. She was the oldest liner then (not really a liner but a passenger-cargo ship). Her alternate was the much better MV Surigao Princess. But she cannot hold the route for long because of problematic engines. Too bad because though small her accommodations are up to Suite level (what a contrast with MV Palawan Princess). MV Surigao Princess was gone in 2003 when she was broken up.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Surigao Princess

Photo credit: Edison Sy

The next route and ship were remarkable because they were able to hold on to the route when her era was already over because of the coming of the intermodal transport. The route was the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route. No, you can’t buy a Manila-Cebu ticket for this ship. You would have to pay extra for the Ormoc-Cebu leg which functions as an overnight route (in the MV Princess of the Caribbean and MV Dipolog Princess one can’t also ask for a ticket up to Cebu from Manila). There were long lay-overs too in Masbate and Ormoc. Even when the intermodal was already ruling, the MV Cebu Princess still soldiered on in this route because Sulpicio Lines simply won’t send ships to breakers as long as it was still capable of sailing.

The last liner route of Sulpicio Lines was a route that changed, was cropped within the period I am discussing (the other I mentioned that were cropped were cropped before this period). This was the route of the MV Tacloban Princess. Originally, she had a twice weekly route to Tacloban with one of that passing by Catbalogan. But with the loss of passengers and cargo to the buses and trucks, they dropped Catbalogan. For a time she even stopped sailing the Tacloban route (just too many buses here and also trucks especially trucks going back to Manila looking for a load). There was a time Sulpicio Lines combined her route with the route of MV Cebu Princess. Sulpicio Lines simply does not give up on a route and area. And that characteristic was the one lost by Philippine shipping (and that was irreplaceable) when they went out of ferry business because the other competitor was known for dropping routes in a minute because bean counters ruled there.

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Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas

Aside from these liner routes, Sulpicio Lines also had dedicated overnight ferry routes and ships. For the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route they used two ships. The first was the MV Cagayan Princess. But when the competition heated up in this route they fielded the new liner MV Princess of the Ocean. After she was assigned there, nobody can outgun Sulpicio Lines in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route in size and speed (well, even in the prestigious and premier Manila-Cebu route, Sulpicio Lines does not want to be outmatched).

And for the Cebu-Nasipit overnight ferry route, they have the MV Nasipit Princess at the start. But she does not sail in most days as its engines were really bad. When MV Princess of the Ocean was assigned in the Cagayan de Oro overnight route, the MV Cagayan Princess was assigned the primary duty in the Nasipit overnight route. In 2005 the MV Princess of the Earth came and she relieved the MV Cagayan Princess which was then brought to a new route, the overnight ferry route to Naval, Biliran. The Nasipit (Butuan in Sulpicio Lines parlance) overnight ferry route was one overnight route that Sulpicio Lines dominated in this era as the competition was inconsistent (sometimes there were ships, sometimes there were none).

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In 2008, Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. Three ferries, the MV Cebu Princess, the MV Cagayan Princess and the MV Tacloban City were sold off immediately to raise cash (and I knew then that the routes that hooks eastward and the most threatened by the intermodal will be finally lost). A few ships were allowed to sail thereafter but MV Cotabato Princess quit soon. Meanwhile the Sulpicio Lines fleet languished in Mactan Channel.

One by one the laid-up ships were sold to the breakers starting with the MV Princess of Paradise and MV Palawan Princess. This was followed by the MV Cotabato Princess. I guess they were trying to raise cash for settlement and other expenses by these disposals and also to amass cash for the purchase of new cargo ships. They had then two ships sailing, the MV Princess of the South which was holding the Manila-Cebu route and the MV Princess of the Earth which was sailing the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route with a diversion to Nasipit twice a week.

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There were five ships then in Mactan Channel and in their wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue. These were the MV Princess of the Universe, the MV Filipina Princess, the MV Princess of the Ocean, the MV Princess of the Caribbean and the MV Dipolog Princess. It is as if Sulpicio Lines was still waiting for a favorable turn of events in the greatest crisis of their company when public opinion was very much against them. But in one fell swoop they sold the five laid-up ships to the breakers. Maybe for emotional reasons the departures happened in the night.

Laid up three years those ships already deteriorated especially they were in sea water. Every year not used the budget needed to get them going again mounts. And the hope that the government and MARINA will relent on restrictions seemed to have evaporated. Being politicians, they would rather feed off on uninformed public opinion. Having no understanding of the maritime industry, they did not know they were killing the already threatened liner sector. Along this time PSACC (Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation – the new name of Sulpicio Lines) reached the decision to just concentrate on container shipping.

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In 2014, Sulpicio Lines sold their last two ferries, the MV Princess of the Earth and lastly, the MV Princess of the South. Now they are gone from passenger shipping. And when PSACC had already sold their last liners, MARINA withdrew their passenger license. Funny.

Ironic but the government is now encouraging entrants to this sector. But definitely there would be no takers as the viability of liners has changed and they have killed the most interested and most loyal shipping company in this sector. As the saying goes, “The medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”. That is what they did to Sulpicio Lines. The company will still survive in cargo shipping but the dedicated sea passengers have no more liners to sail with. Sad.

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The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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