The Flagship and Great Liner Wars Going Into the Middle ’90s

If the deadly-for-shipping decade of the ’80s ended in 1990, in 1992 and more so in 1993 there was a palpable change of mood in the local shipping industry. There was optimism, a new outlook and the surviving shipping companies were raring to go instead of just trying to keep their heads above water. There was a new administration ruling in Malacanang under President Fidel V. Ramos which has called for shipping modernization (it was not just modernization but also to address our lack of ferries then). It rolled out incentives for shipping including a program to acquire new ships. The power crisis and the coup d’etat attempts against the previous administration were over and business was picking up. An uptick in business is also a call for shipping expansion, so it was thought then.


I remember that 1992 and 1993 were signal years for Philippine shipping. That was when great liners (Frank Heine and Frank Lose defined this as liners of over 10,000 gross tons) started arriving in local shores and the flagship wars of the local shipping companies began in earnest. It took the competitors of Sulpicio Lines four or five years before they were able to respond to the knock-out punch delivered by Sulpicio Lines in 1988 when they acquired the trio of Filipina Princess, Cotabato Princess and Nasipit Princess. William Lines, then the closest competitor of Sulpicio Lines for the bragging rights of which is Numero Uno rolled out the splendid-looking with impressive interiors, the tall Maynilad in 1992. However, she had an Achilles heel which cannot be remedied – she severely lacked speed, a requirement for great liners and she was just in the 140-meter class, no matter how much superstructure they tried to build into her.


Maynilad by Britz Salih

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded the SuperFerry 2 in 1992. She was much like in the interiors and size of the SuperFerry 1 at being in the 130-meter class also but her passenger capacity was maxed. However, she was not in the 20-knot class unlike the SuperFerry 1 and Filipina Princess. Twenty knots was already the speed considered necessary then for great liners locally, if they wanted bragging rights. Negros Navigation fielded the San Paolo in 1992 and the Princess of Negros, their new flagship, in 1993. But both were just in the 110-meter class and their speeds were just about equal to SuperFerry 2 at most. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation also fielded the SuperFerry 3 in 1993 but she was also in the 110-meter class like the San Paolo and the Princess of Negros. Moreover, her speed was a little inferior to the two.


Mabuhay 1 by Britz Salih

In 1993, William Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) showed two great liners that were a direct challenge to Sulpicio Lines. William Lines fielded the great Mabuhay 1 which was also in the 180-meter class like the Filipina Princess but was more modern-looking. The Our Lady of Akita of Gothong Lines was not as sleek-looking but she was also big being in the 160-meter class. When the two arrived, it was only Filipina Princess which was breaching the 150-meter mark among local liners in length.


Our Lady of Akita by Britz Salih

News of incoming liners to the Philippines usually become rumors in Japan shipping circles even before the ships prepare to leave Japan waters and that could even be months in advance. After all, it is just a small, close-knit circle and news of a newbuilding of a ship that will replace a sailing one on the same route are also known by the time the keels are laid. And that is about half a year or more before they are even delivered. So speculations are always rife as to where the ships that will be replaced will be headed (in terms of country) and who is the agent and the buyer.

In Japan, a company bet big on the “Highways of the Sea”, the big, fast overnight ROROs which connected the northern and southern parts of Japan to its central part and metropolises. The Terukuni group and its shipping company Nihon Kosoku Ferry built the all-big (only one is less than 180-meters length in a series of seven) Sun Flower series of luxury liners successively between 1972 and 1974. Not only all were grand but all were very well-appointed and tops in comfort. Like floating “hotels of the sea”, they were the Japan equivalent of the legendary Stena series of luxury ferries in Sweden and in Europe.

Terukuni and its shipping company did not earn money from the series and became financially distressed and so changes in the ownership structure came about. Even so, the Sun Flower series became highly regarded. At times, the more important thing was the impact, the lasting impression and the regard created in the public’s mind. The Sun Flower series was well-remembered in Japan to almost the equivalent to being able to lay down a template.

The Philippines was lucky we had Japan connections and so a few of these great and grand liners of Japan came to our shores. Some will notice that the great liners that came later like SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 (the two were also Sun Flowers) and St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier (which are sister ships of the first pair) are no longer as luxurious. Tastes and conditions have changed. In the 1990’s, the new “Highways of the Sea” were just functional ferries and no longer offered First Class. They might rival their 1970’s predecessors in size and speed but they were no match in the arena of appointments and luxury.

Two of these 1970’s beautiful Sun Flower ships came at the same year in the Philippines – amazingly to compete with each other! Sun Flower 5 came to William Lines and became her Mabuhay 1, the progenitor of the highest class of William Lines liners. At 185 meters, she was of the same size as the former reigning queen of Philippine shipping, the Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines. But Mabuhay 1 was more-modern looking and she had better appointments. Both were 20-knot class in speed but Filipina Princess was still speedier. After all, she still has an edge of nearly 6,000 horsepower in power output.


Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

But Sulpicio Lines was not to be denied. The biggest of the Sun Flower series which was the Sun Flower 11 came to Sulpicio Lines and became the Princess of the Orient in 1993. This ship had that distinctive two funnels in one line in the center of the ship, a feature not present in the other Sun Flowers. She was also in the 195-meter class. As such, she will hold the title of being the biggest liner in the Philippines at that time. However, she might have been bigger and taller but she cannot do 20 knots unlike the Mabuhay 1. [As a footnote to this class, another one of the Sun Flowers came in 1999, a true sister of Mabuhay 1. That was the Princess of New Unity of Sulpicio Lines which was the Sun Flower 8 in Japan].


Princess of Paradise by Aris Refugio

And it was not only the Princess of the Orient that came for Sulpicio Lines in 1993. That year she also acquired the big, fast, tall and well-appointed Princess of Paradise from China (but she was originally sailing in Japan). With her fielding, she will be the next holder of the title “Speed Queen” among the liners, the successor to the Filipina Princess in this category.


St. Francis of Assisi (saved from the net by ‘rrd80’)

The Princess of Paradise was also in the 160-meter class like the Our Lady of Akita but the former was more modern-looking. The two will battle not only in the Cagayan de Oro route and also the Cebu and Nasipit routes. Meanwhile, the Mabuhay 1 and Princess of the Orient will battle in the premier Cebu route (with Filipina Princess still calling in Cebu on the way to Davao). Mabuhay 1 will also show her colors once a week in Iloilo. It is to this challenge to their home port that Negros Navigation responded in 1994 with the equally-impressive and fast St. Francis of Assisi, their next flagship. She was not that big at 140-meter class but she can also do 20 knots and she was very well-appointed, too.


Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

The third ship that came to Sulpicio Lines in 1993 for its wars for the Number 1 position among our shipping companies was the Princess of the Pacific. She was made tall but she was only 137 meters in length, about the length of the new Aboitiz liners. She had the same speed of 18.5 knots like the Princess of the Orient (and better than SuperFerry 2) but she was not that well-appointed. She also docked in Iloilo on her way to Zamboanga and General Santos City. It seems that like in 1988, to fend off competition Sulpicio Lines acquires a bunch of impressive, new liners.

When Mabuhay 1 came to take over flagship duties for William Lines in the premier route to Cebu, in a short time their former flagship Sugbu previously holding that route quietly disappeared. She headed to Singapore for reincarnation as the third ship of the Mabuhay series in 1994, the Mabuhay 3. When she came back, few were able to recognize her as she was lengthened and the superstructure changed and with modifications she was now capable of 20 knots.


Mabuhay 3 as Super by Vincent Paul Sanchez

Suddenly, in 1993 we truly had great liners in size and in appointments. They all breached 160 meters in length and they were all in the 10,000-gross ton class. In amenities, luxury and passenger service they were a step ahead of the previous big liners. With their more modern design, even the great Filipina Princess suddenly looked old (but not in speed!).

In this year, we were beginning to reach the pinnacle of local passenger liner shipping. More liners will then come together with a “Great Merger” that produced WG&A. From a lack of bottoms at the start of 1990, it seemed to me that before the decade was out we already had a surplus of liners. This can be shown when older liners especially the cruiser liners were sent to the breakers. Some, however, were acquired by regional shipping companies like the Sampaguita Shipping of Zamboanga. This was also apparent in sending old RORO liners to the overnight routes of Cebu Ferries Corporation.

It was not a one-alley fight, however. Intermodal buses were beginning to muscle in especially in the eastern seaboard and a new budget airline, the Cebu Pacific Air was born. On the cargo side, forwarding and trucking companies were mushrooming powered by the arrival of fast surplus trucks in the Subic free port. And this included the wing van trucks which will soon be the bane of the container vans.

From the pinnacle, where is one headed especially if blind to parallel competition?


Negros Navigation Had The Most Modern Fleet From The late ’60’s To The Late ’80’s

When Negros Navigation celebrated it’s Diamond Anniversary in 2007, it issued an anniversary book. Going through the book, the reader might think that all along Negros Navigation was a great liner company. Unfortunately, that was not the case as Negros Navigation started as a shipping company linking just Panay and Negros and this was true even after World War II or nearly three decades after the company was founded. This would also mean that some shipping companies were the main connection of Western Visayas to Manila before Negros Navigation took that role.

Filipino shipping companies came to the fore in the early1930’s when it was becoming clear that a preparatory period for independence was coming. Filipino businessmen then thought they will supplant the then-dominant American businesses here when independence will come (nobody then can anticipate the “Parity Amendment” which came together with our independence).


Credit to Gorio Belen

In the Commonwealth period, the dominant Western Visayas shipping company was the De la Rama Steamship. Don Esteban de la Rama of Iloilo was a very wealthy businessman and very well-connected politically as he himself was a Senator of the land and Vice-President Osmena was his brother-in-law. In this period, De la Rama Steamship ordered brand-new liners from Germany and those were the best in the land then and comparable to foreign liners.

Like many other shipping companies, De la Rama Steamship lost their liners during the war and after the war they were recipients of reparations by the Americans which promised replacement for the comandeered liners during the war. They also had some new-builds ordered from Japan which became the bone of contention later. In a few years, however, De la Rama Steamship concentrated on foreign trade and gave up their local routes.

After the war, there was another shipping company that served as the main connection of Western Visayas to Manila and this was the Southern Lines which was founded by rich businessmen of Western Visayas which belonged to the upper crust of the society of that region. Southern Lines operated converted former “FS” ships like many shipping companies of that era and it concentrated mainly in linking Iloilo and Bacolod to Manila. This company did not expand to other regions like what Negros Navigation did later.

1947 Southern Lines

Credit to Gorio Belen

Negros Navigation became a liner operation from being a regional when they and Ledesma Lines merged in the late 1950’s. Before this it was Ledesma Lines that had routes to Manila. This merger was the reason why the Ledesma family held substantial holdings in Negros Navigation for several decades until they sold off when they didn’t agree with the national expansion plan of Daniel “Bitay” Lacson in the 1990’s.

Southern Lines went out of operations in the mid-’60s and they sold off their ships but it did not go to Negros Navigation. I am not sure if there was a sell-out of routes to Negros Navigation but it will not really matter then as getting routes was easy for the company as their ownership which also belong to the upper crust of Western Visayas society was very close to President Ferdinand Marcos then.

I am of the mind, however, that the demise of Southern Lines might be an orchestrated move to pave way for the rise of Negros Navigation. The ownership of the two shipping companies are related by kinship and marriage and I think it was obvious which company had the blessings of Malacanang. And actually there is an indirect proof that Negros Navigation already controlled Southern Lines before its demise.

1960 Jul 2 schedules

Credit to Gorio Belen

Negros Navigation as a new liner company built up its fleet not by buying surplus ships but by ordering new, purpose-built liners from Hongkong first and then Japan. Their first brand-new liner was the “Princess of Negros” which was built by Hongkong Whampoa in 1962. This was cruiser with the external dimensions 61.0 meters by 9.5 meters with the cubic dimension 493 gross register tons. The ship had a net register tonnage of 301 tons and a DWT (deadweight tonnage) of 188 tons.


Credit to Lindsay Bridge

These dimensions were almost like that of an ex-”FS” ship but actually she was even a little smaller. She was speedier though because she was powered by a 1,920-horsepower B&W Alpha engine whose power was almost double that of an “FS” ship and so she was capable of 13 knots sustained. The passenger capacity of the “Princess of Negros” was 349 persons divided into several classes from Economy to Suite in three decks. The ship’s ID was IMO 5284974.

The next new-build liner of Negros Navigation and the others that followed after it was from Japan. This was the “Dona Florentina” which came in 1965 and she ushered the “Dona” series of Negros Navigation. She was built by Hitachi Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in Osaka yard, Japan. The ship measured 95.7 meters by 13.9 meters with a gross register tonnage of 2,095 tons. She was powered by a single 4,400-horsepower Hitachi engine and her design speed was 17.5 knots. This ship’s permanent ID was IMO 6515899.

This ship was already part then of the trend of building liners with airconditioning with a length of just short of 100 meters and with 2,000-gross register tons size, a speed of approximately 18 knots and passenger capacity of just below a thousand. During this time this was what was considered then as a “luxury liner”, taken in their size, speed, accommodations, food and passenger service. The “Dona Florentina” can be considered as the first luxury liner of Negros Navigation and she had a passenger capacity of 832 in a net tonnage of 1,015 and a DWT of 1,425 which was the load capacity.


Credit to Gorio Belen

A sister ship of hers followed the “Dona Florentina” in 1967. This was the “Don Julio” which possessed more beautiful lines and this ship was considered the beauty of her time. She has the same external dimensions as “Dona Florentina” but her cubic capacity was 2,116 gross register tons (this later rose to 2,381 tons), a net register tonnage of 1,111 tons and a DWT of 1,425 tons. The “Don Julio” has the same engine and speed of her sister ship but her passenger capacity was higher at 994 persons. The ship was not built by Hitachi Shipbuilding but by Maizuru Shipyard in Maizuru, Kyoto, Japan. Her permanent ID was IMO 6728549.

Another brand-new ship from Japan, the “Don Vicente” arrived for Negros Navigation in 1969 and she was mainly used for the Iloilo-Bacolod route. However, this ship was bigger than the “Princess of Negros” at 77.4 meters by 12.0 meters. Her gross register tonnage was 1,964 tons and her net register tonnage was 493 tons with a DWT of 576 tons. The ship was built by Niigata Shipbuilding in Niigata, Japan and her permanent ID was IMO 7003763.


Credit to Dimas Almada

The “Don Vicente” was actually bigger than the converted former “FS” ships, even the lengthened ones, which was the common liner of the era. She was actually faster too at 17 knots which came from a pair of Niigata engines (this was the first-twin screw new ship of Negros Navigation) of 4,000 horsepower total. It would not have been a shame if she was fielded as a liner to Manila but the rich of Western Visayas also wanted a good, exclusive ship for the Iloilo-Bacolod route.

In 1971, a sister ship of “Dona Florentina” and “Don Julio” came from Japan, the “Don Juan” which then became the flagship of Negros Navigation until 1980. She, too, was built by Niigata Shipbuilding in Niigata, Japan. She measured 95.7 meters by 13.8 meters and that was near-identical to her sister ships. Her cubic volumes in gross register tonnage and net register tonnage was 2,310 and 1,330 tons, respectively, and her load capacity in DWT was 1,372 tons.

1971 MS Don Juan

Credit to Gorio Belen

This ship was faster than her sister ships because she was powered by a 5,000-horsepower B&W engine which gave her a sustained speed of 19 knots. Like her sisters ships she had accommodations from Economy to Suite but her passenger capacity was only 740 persons when her net register tonnage was higher and that means she has more space total and more space per passenger than her sister ships. She had the permanent ID IMO 7118088.

In 1971, when the “Don Juan” arrived, the economic crisis of the country was already deepening and this can be seen in the free fall (called “floating rate” then) of the peso which meant devaluation. With devaluation, the imported goods became more expensive in peso terms which means for the same thing like a same ship, the shipping company has to pay more. With this the ordering of new ships from Japan by Negros Navigation stopped. But in their fleet they already had five brand-new ships which was enough for their limited routes to Western Visayas and their Iloilo-Bacolod route.


Credit to Chief Ray Smith

In 1976, Negros Navigation will add a 10-year old second-hand ship, the “Don Claudio” which became the biggest ship in the fleet by a small margin. And in 1980 they will acquire their first RORO liner, the “Dona Maria” which was then a 7-year old ship. However, in external dimensions she was just as big as the “Don Vicente” and in design speed she was the slowest at 15 knots save for the first brand-new ship, the “Princess of Negros”.

Negros Navigation sold to Southern Lines the liner they inherited from Ledesma Lines (and Southern Lines sold their old ships to other shipping companies). This was an earlier “Don Julio” which was a re-engined ex-”FS” ship. That means Negros Navigation had the newest fleet since the late ’60s when it was already able to build a fleet of their own. And by reckoning, they still had the newest ships up to the early ’80s, definitely, and most likely up to the second half of this decade. That was what they earned by buying new ships when the competition was still dependent on ex-”FS” ships of World War II vintage.

In the ’80s the other shipping companies were already shedding their their former World War II ships. From thereon all the shipping companies were purchasing surplus ships from Japan built in the late ’60s to the early ’70s, the same age now of the Negros Navigation cruiser ships. When they started acquiring RORO liners it was more or less of the same age and so no company can claim their fleet was younger. With great devaluation it was already suicide for shipping companies to order brand-new ships. It was simply unaffordable by that time already.


Credit to Gorio Belen

But for a while, for some two decades, Negros Navigation can claim outright they have the youngest liners in the country.