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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

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Photo from homepagenifty2

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

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

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

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Photo by Joel Bado

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

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

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

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Photo from Wakanatsu

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

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

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

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Photo by Rodney Orca

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

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

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Taken from http://www.typhoon2000.com

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

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

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Credits: NAMRIA and PDI

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

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

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

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Photo by Britz Salih

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