The Philippines’ First Fast Cruiser Liner

Cruiser liners are our type of comfortable passenger-cargo ships that came before the ROROs (Roll-on, Roll-off ships). They were called cruisers for their type of stern which is curving like a half-moon. This type of ship has no car ramps nor decks for vehicles. What they had were cargo decks with booms to handle the cargo by lifting.

Cruiser liners of the past were slow ships especially those that were surplus ships from the US after the war. The prewar liners were also slow as their engines were not powerful. However, like in cars or planes, gradually the liners became faster until the advent of the fast cruiser liner. These had more powerful engines and were designed for fast turn-around times especially with the use of less in-ports (ports where the liners call in at the middle of the voyage).

The fast cruiser liners we had mainly came from Japan but there were exceptions and among that was the very first cruiser we ever had. Now, what constitutes “fast”? In my grouping and analysis of liners these are the passenger-cargo ships which can do 18 to 20 knots or at the minimum is 17.5 knots, sustained (as 17.5 knots is not too far from 18 knots). Of course, in their ads the shipping companies always stress the less travel time of this kind of ship and William Lines even had monickers for them like “Cheetah of the Sea” or “Sultan of the Sea”.

In this game, it was Negros Navigation who was the series pioneer starting in 1965 with the acquisition of the brand-new Dona Florentina from Japan. Compania Maritima followed suit in 1968 with the brand-new Filipinas and William Lines and Sulpicio Lines just followed lately in 1975 (but eventually they had the most number of fast cruiser liners). Sweet Lines, meanwhile, entered this race with their legendary Sweet Faith in 1970 (and by that time, the fast cruiser liner was already accepted as the new paradigm or mode).

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1960 Apr 30 - Phil President Lines

What the PPL emphasized before the arrival of the President Quezon. ex-“FS” can’t offer much, really. From The Philippines Herald. Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

However, the very first to first a fast cruiser liner was the newly-formed shipping company in 1961, the Philippine President Lines or PPL. The ship was the President Quezon and later just the Quezon when an oceangoing ship took that name. When PPL transferred their local operations (they were more of an oceangoing company) to Philippine Pioneer Lines, the ship was renamed to Pioneer Iloilo as it was doing the Manila-Iloilo route. And when the company was renamed into Galaxy Lines after the loss of two ships, the liner was further renamed into the Galaxy, a clear indication she was the flagship of the fleet (the other ships of the fleet were named after constellations). And it seems to me that many who knew her this was the name that stuck to their minds. So this final name of hers will be what I will be mainly using in this article.

The Galaxy started life as a seaplane tender of the US Navy in World War II. Part of the Barnegat-class of small sea plane tenders she was first known as the USS Onslow. Her builder was the Lake Washington Shipyard in Houghton, Washington and she was commissioned in December of 1943. In the US Navy she was known as the AVP-48 and she gained four battle stars during World War II.

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The USS Onslow. A US Naval Historical photo.

In 1947, the USS Onslow was decommissioned by the US Navy and put on reserve but she was recommissioned in 1951 because of the Korean War. She was finally decommissioned in 1960 and sold that same year to the Philippine President Lines. Because of the need for refitting to build passenger accommodations, it was only late in 1961 when she began operation as a commercial ferry.

Even though a fast cruiser liner her first route was Manila-Iloilo-Pulupandan-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro. Later, in Galaxy Lines, she became a dedicated Manila-Iloilo ferry doing a twice a week voyage and her speed was emphasized in their advertisement. It was claimed that she was the fastest ferry in the Philippines which was actually true. With a claimed 19 hours transit time in the Manila-Iloilo route that meant she was averaging 18 knots in the route.

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From the research of Gorio Belen of the PSSS in the National Library.

The President Quezon/Quezon/Pioneer Iloilo/Galaxy was a well-furnished ship and it advertised air-conditioned cabins and dining saloons. But then she might have been in the wrong route as Negros Navigation also offered the same amenities in the Iloilo route. Maybe, she should just have been fielded in the Manila-Cebu route as there were no fast cruiser liners then yet in Cebu.

The Galaxy was a big liner for her time when very few liners touched 100 meters in length. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 94.7 meters and she had a Breadth of 12.5 meters with a Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) of 2,137 tons. In size, she is approximately that of the infamous Dona Paz which came after her by 14 years. Her two diesel engines produced a combined 6,080 horsepower which was the highest for liners during that time and that gave her a speed of over 18 knots.

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From the Philippine Herald. Research by Gorio Belen of the PSSS in the National Library.

However, as the decade was ending, unreliability began surfacing for Galaxy and that was what the situation too for US war-surplus ships except for the ex-“FS” ships which had electric drives. In 1971 she foundered at her moorings during a storm but she was salvaged. However, her company was soon winding up operations as it was failing. Her last notable service was when she was chartered by the US during their pull-out from Vietnam in 1975.

Now, almost nobody remembers the Galaxy because she last sailed about 45 years ago. However, she was among our best liners during her time and she is really worth remembering.

What Has MARINA Done For The Country’s International Container Shipping?

It was in 1974 that MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority was created by a Presidential Decree by then President Ferdinand Marcos. Its primary mandate was the development of our maritime industry. For such function it has the shipping companies, the seamen and the shipyards under it. MARINA was our maritime regulatory agency and it even has quasi-judicial powers. As such this agency is responsible for issuing franchises to ships and in approving route permits. For a long time too they decided rates and fares in the shipping industry. MARINA was in charge of the inter-island trade as well as the ocean-going trade.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

When MARINA was created in 1974, we still had many international lines ranging from Philippine President Lines (sometimes known as United President Lines), Maritime Company of the Philippines, the Eastern Shipping Lines, Madrigal Shipping as well as an assortment of smaller international lines some of which were associated with our national passenger liner companies. In those days we were ahead of most of our neighbors in international shipping and that might have included even South Korea and China. Can anybody imagine that was possible and believable? It can even be an entry now in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not”.

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From an newspaper found by Grek Peromingan

When Martial Law came another ocean-going company emerged in the scene, the Galleon Shipping Corporation of Herminio Disini, a documented Marcos crony (“Some Are Smarter Than Others” by Ricardo Manapat) and of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant “fame”. He and the surging Philippine President Lines (PPL), now helmed by Emilio Yap, of the Manila Hotel and Manila Bulletin fame, had a race in the ocean-going scene, acquiring tons of big ships from the National Development Company (NDC) of the Philippine Government. Government functionaries during Martial Law simply cannot ignore what were called as “marginal notes”.

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From an newspaper found by Grek Peromingan

The two giant companies were able to accumulate a total of some 200,000 gross tons of ships totaling some 20 ships each. How big was that? The only other time that figure was approached was when the WG&A was created with the merger of William Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in 1996 and that included the container ships for a total of some 60 ships.

In using government funds for development the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) is mandated act as the validator if the project really makes sense. And I assume the input of MARINA was sought in the maritime field because supposedly it regulates this field and it is tasked for its development.

I wonder about the divergence. In the 1970’s, our neighbors were already stressing and supporting the creation of their international container lines after seeing this new paradigm develop in the late 1960’s in the more advanced countries. In our country, what the National Development Company acquired for Philippine President Lines and Galleon Shipping Corporation were the castoff bulk carriers and OBO ships of the other countries some of which were even built in the 1940’s and the 1950’s (and it was already in the 1970’s; during that period we buy ferries that were 10 years old). What was the sense in that? Well, if there is “slush”, then that is the “sense” maybe.

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Built in 1958. From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Where was MARINA in all of that? They should have been the “experts” telling the government the “development” was headed in the wrong direction. Shall we lay the primary blame to NEDA? They might have MBA graduates there from good schools but that degree does not confer any maritime knowledge (well, they might not even know the difference of port to starboard or bow to stern). Was it because MARINA is full of lawyers in the upper echelons and not by true maritime experts? The government can hire consultants if they lack knowledge. Did they ever try to enroll true maritime experts in this case?

Fast forward to the great political and financial crisis of 1983 when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated and the economy was tottering, let alone the Marcos regime. Not long after this the Philippine President Lines and Galleon Shipping Corporation toppled along with the Martial Law regime that supported them. Their ships stopped sailing and most were given the fiery torch treatment of the ship breakers. Some others, the newer ones were sold abroad. Practically none survived locally except for the Galleon Tourmaline which became the Madrigal Integrity of Madrigal Shipping.

And that was really a great lost chance for Philippine shipping. It invested a lot of money in ships and all came to naught. And it is very hard to find a second chance after a venture that lost great money and simply went down the drain. The government was left practically holding nothing but just an empty bag. Or shall we say a bag with a lot of scrap metal.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, some local shipping companies still tried to engage in the international container trade at least in the short routes in the Far East. It was not really a full container service as understood in the full sense of the world. One of these was the Aboitiz Overseas Shipping Corporation (AOSC). Another was the Eastern Shipping Lines (but it was mainly operating general cargo ships). None ever engaged big container ships by international standards.

I thought Aboitiz was serious in this business when they acquired three brand-new container ships from Ukraine starting in 1994, the Ramon Aboitiz, Vidal Aboitiz and the Luis Aboitiz. The three were under Aboitiz Jebsens and were not part of the merger that produced WG&A. However, after a few years the three were sold. Maybe they found out competing with established international container lines is difficult. We don’t have much to offer the world anyway. Abaca and copra have lost importance in the world market and we have no more logs left and metal ores were in the doldrums then. Our tropical fruits and fresh produce still had limited production and markets then.

A new millennium is always greeted with great fanfare, hopes and expectations. But not in our international shipping. By this time we almost have no container ships going abroad. We practically have no bulkers or OBO ships going abroad. Of course, some small general-purpose cargo ships will go abroad if there is cargo but that is nothing to be proud of and that is not significant enough to be counted. All we had was a lot of mariners wanting to board ships somehow.

Where was MARINA in this plunge of our international shipping, I would like to ask? Where were they as developers of our shipping? Where they simply just too busy pushing papers and affixing their signatures to the regulations they impose on our seamen? Their number is nearly a million so imagine all the papers that need to be cleared. Maybe because of the weight of all of these they have already forgotten that their primary duty is to develop our maritime industry. Actually our mariners are over-certificated. Our doctors, engineers and other professionals don’t have to waste time pursuing such many certificates. In the mariner world, it is not only certificates that they have to cope with. They also have to undergo a lot of training repeatedly at their own expense. Maybe the lawyers in MARINA should be the first one to undergo and pass these trainings and be able to handle ships in the real world.

Today, we still have no international container shipping lines. Well, not even reefers which are important to our fresh fruit and fresh produce exports except for two ships I heard is chartered by Lapanday Foods Corporation of the Lorenzo family. If an innocent lad will look at the ships that call on our ports he might think our national line is Maersk as they dominate our foreign trade.

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A ship of the de facto “national” container line of the Philippines

Today our neighbors have their international container lines. We have none. So clearly in this segment MARINA was clearly a great failure after all these years. It simply dropped the ball.

What are their plans for this segment? Or is it better to just dissolve them and replace them with a body of true maritime experts (like those who know that most maritime accidents are caused by human error) who truly have the interest of our shipping in their hearts and have the vision (and who know their main job is not the export of mariners)?