The Diamond Ferries in the Philippines

When the Diamond Ferry Company ordered in 1990 and 1991 their second set of sister ships identical to their first set they ordered earlier, little did they know that the boom times of Japan fueled by the Japan property bubble would soon turn into bust that will bring about years of economic stagnation in their country. Such was the scenario when the Blue Diamond and the Star Diamond came into the Diamond Ferry Company. With the company not being one of the biggest and strongest in Japan, it had more trouble riding out the bad years and so the sister ships had difficulty keeping themselves afloat and it even gave to periods of being laid up.

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The Blue Diamond (Image from http://www.kipio.net)

In 2007, the Diamond Ferry Company and the Blue Highway Line merged to better wear out the storm. This was but natural as they were both majority-controlled already by the stronger shipping company MOL (Mitsui OSK Lines). However, even with the merger the fate of the sister ships did not go any better – they were simply offered for sale from a laid-up condition and for months they were in ship-for-sale sites. In 2007, the Star Diamond was snapped up by China buyers to become the Jiadong Pearl. She was supposedly the stronger ship of the two in the engine department.

That was a puzzling period for me because many shipping investors then were thinking the cruise ship and liner market will go up (and most were disappointed later on). This was about the same time that four liners of Aboitiz Transport Corporation (ATS) were also snapped up by foreign buyers. Quite puzzling for me because the liner prices then were very high as the world metal price suddenly doubled because of the China demand. ATS earned a tidy profit with their opportunistic sale and woe to the shipping companies who bought their liners as none sailed successfully and most were soon for sale after the expenses of refitting and refurbishing (like foreign operators don’t have our Economy class).

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The Star Diamond (Image from advectionfog.net)

The Blue Diamond languished for a while but in 2008 she was acquired by a Korean tour operator and she became the Queen Mary. After about two years, she was again laid up and put up for sale. That time the world metal prices went down to more-or-less normal and ATS was actually among who those who took a look on this ship. They did not purchase this, however, because of a tip that the engines were no longer strong. The ship was, however, was purchased by Negros Navigation Company which lost out in the bidding for the two sister ships of Kansai Kisen K.K. which turned out to be SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 here. The two SuperFerries were sister ships of Star Diamond and Blue Diamond.

So, in 2011, the Blue Diamond came to the Philippines to become the St. Michael The Archangel of Negros Navigation Company (after SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 were fielded by ATS). There were hoots initially as the St. Michael The Archangel can only do 17 knots initially while her ATS sister ships can do 20 knots comfortably. When to think they were all sister ships with exactly the same engines and external measurements. To the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), this proved that the rumors were true regarding the Blue Diamond‘s engines.

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St. Michael The Archangel by James Gabriel Verallo

The St. Michael The Archangel was sent back for some refitting and she was then able to do some 19 knots. She might have become the flagship of Negros Navigation although there were those who say that the smallest and slowest ship of the company, the San Paolo was actually the flagship of the company. The St. Michael The Archangel was only the fourth sailing ship of Negros Navigation in this period when their other sister ships, the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were not reliable enough (with work on their MAN engines, they became reliable later). It seems when a shipping company has problems, their ships also get sick.

Meanwhile, the Jiadong Pearl was released by her China owners in 2010 and she went to Korea as a tourist ship named the Gwangyang Beech. In 2013, she was sold to Negros Navigation and so the Diamond Ferry sister ships were reunited. The ship was named as St. Francis Xavier in the Negros Navigation fleet (but the naming caused confusion to some because previously the company had a liner named the St. Francis of Assisi). Like SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, the St. Francis Xavier has no problem doing 20 knots and she is very reliable too.

When Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) acquired Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to form 2GO, the four sisters all came under one roof. It was St. Michael The Archangel which has a small difference since she had a restaurant-lounge built in the rear sundeck which actually made her better-looking plus it is an appreciated additional passenger facility. St. Francis Xavier, meanwhile, has a small equivalent at the stern. This ship has also a side ramp that is not present in her sister ships. Though sister ships but having different owners before, the four have some minor structural differences if viewed from the outside.

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St. Francis Xavier by Daryl Yting

On the inside, the four has also had similarities in the design and arrangement. But it seems the pair of NENACO have the better and more developed interiors as the former Kansai Kisen ships look too workmanlike and even bland by liner standards. With such better development, the passenger capacities of the NENACO sisters ships are much higher than the former ATS sister ships. The St. Michael The Archangel has a passenger capacity of 1,929 while St. Francis Xavier has a passenger capacity of 1,910. The original passenger capacities of the former ATS ships were only 859 when their length, breadth and superstructure were practically the same as the other two and all retained the dual cargo decks.

The former Diamond Ferries were built by Shin Kurushima Dockyard Company in their Onishi yard in Japan (the sister ships from ATS were built by Kanasashi Company Ltd. Toyohashi Works in Toyohashi, Japan). The St. Michael The Achangel was built in 1990 with the ID IMO 9000455 while St. Francis Xavier was built in 1991 with the ID IMO 8847595. Both had external dimensions of 150.9 meters by 25.0 meters by 13.3 meters. The St. Michael The Archangel has the greater gross tonnage at 17,781 (maybe because of the added restaurant-lounge) while St. Francis Xavier has 15,971. The net tonnages vary too. The St. Michael The Archangel has 5,334 in net tonnage while the St. Francis Xavier has 4,808 in net tonnage. In rated horsepower there is a variance, too. St. Michael The Archangel has 25,200hp like her sisters from ATS while the St. Francis Xavier has only 24,700hp. However, the four are all powered by twin Hitachi-Sulzer engines.

The sisters have the modern bulbous stem and both have transom sterns. Both have two passenger decks and two cargo decks and a dominating single center funnel. 

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St. Michael The Archangel by Mike Baylon

As 2GO ships, the sister ships have no permanent route assignments as in they rotate routes with the other ships of the fleet. However, what separates now the St. Michael The Archangel is her lack of speed compared to her sister ships. Once when I was aboard the Princess of the South going to Manila. I was surprised with how easily we overtook her nearing the Verde Island Passage and our ship was only doing 17 knots. Turns out that before her drydock, she was only running at 14 knots. I heard that lately and from AIS observations that she seldom runs over 17 or 18 knots now which is about two knots below her sisters. It seems the report on weakness the engines was really true. And to think she might have been the primary beneficiary of the parts taken from St. Gregory The Great (the former SuperFerry 20) which was holed by an excursion to the reefs of Guimaras.

There are no reports yet of this kind in St. Francis Xavier. She is as fast and as reliable as the St. Leo The Great (the former SuperFerry 21).The company is proud of her as well as the Ilonggos.

The two former Diamond Ferries look like to be workhorses of 2GO in the years to come. They have finally found a home.

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The Last Liner of Sulpicio Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MANILA

TUESDAY

10:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

5:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

3:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 PM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

5:00 AM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

6:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

6:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

4:00 PM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

6:00 AM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

12:00 NN

MANILA

MONDAY

7:00 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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