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”.

When RORO Reigned Supreme

Retrieved from the Old PSSS Website
written by: Mike Baylon

RORO means Roll-on, Roll-off. As distinguished to LOLO (Load-on, Load-off or Lift-on, Lift-off), RORO has cargo ramps and car decks and cargo is not lifted but loaded through vehicles that have wheels. Unlike cruisers that have cruiser sterns ROROs generally have transom sterns.

True ROROs started arriving in the Philippines in the 70’s. This does not include the LCTs which are also ROROs in their own right. The very first RORO could have been the “Millennium Uno” of Millennium Shipping. Japan database shows she arrived in the country in 1973. She is still sailing the Liloan-Lipata route.

Millennium Uno ©Mike Baylon

After some lull the next true ROROs arrived starting in 1978 with the “Northern Samar” of Eugenia Tabinas Shipping Lines of Tabaco, Albay which was fielded in the Sorsogon-Samar route. The next to arrive could be the “Laoang Bay” of Newport Shipping in 1979. This ferry was also later known as “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”. MARINA database also shows “Viva Penafrancia – 9” of Viva Shipping, a steel RORO was built locally in Quezon in 1979.

Starting in 1980, arrivals of RORO in the Philippines stepped up and many even arrived that year while cruiser arrivals began to dry up. In 1980, the “Dona Lili”, “Dona Josefina”, “Don Calvino”, all of Gothong Shipping and the “Sta. Maria” of Negros Navigation arrived. The “Eugenia” of Eugenia Tabinas Shipping seems to have arrived this year also. In 1981 the Melrivic 7 of Aznar Shipping in Cebu came.

The first RORO built by the Philippine government to connect the Maharlika Highway, the “Maharlika I” came in 1982 and she was fielded in the Matnog-San Isidro route connecting Sorsogon and Samar. The second of the series, a sister ship, the “Maharlika II” came in 1984 and was fielded in the Liloan-Lipata route connecting Leyte and Surigao thus completing the Maharlika Highway connection. [Nothing is implied here that in was only in this year that Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected as claimed by some.]

Maharlika I ©Edison Sy

Many of the first ROROs were small. The liner companies did not dominate the first arrivals. It seems it is the provincial short-distance island connectors that first truly appreciated the RORO.

After a very short lull the next batch of ROROs arrived and they appeared in Batangas in the mid-80s. This was spurred by the arrival of “Tokishiho” (later “Emerald I”) of Manila International Shipping Lines to which the dominant Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas immediately countered with the “Viva Penafrancia” in 1985.

The first big RORO liners to arrive that rival the size of the big, fast cruisers were the “Sweet RORO” (1982), “Sweet RORO II” (1983) of Sweet Lines and the “Sta. Florentina” of Negros Navigation in 1983.

Sweet RORO ©lindsaybridge

Sulpicio’s entry to the RORO mode started in 1983 with two modest-sized ROROs, the “Surigao Princess” and the “Butuan Princess” which later became the “Cebu Princess”. William Lines’ foray in RORO started only in 1987 with the “Masbate I”. This was followed by the “Zamboanga” in 1989. WLI’s entry in this field was relatively late and they paid with this by relinquishing the number 1 spot in the local shipping pecking order.

Before the 80s ended Sweet Lines has further added “Sweet Home” (1984), “Sweet Faith” (1987), “Sweet Baby” (1987) and “Sweet Pearl” (1989). Sulpicio Lines has also added “Boholana Princess” (1986). Meanwhile, Gothong Shipping already added the “Dona Cristina” (1985), “Our Lady of Guadalupe” (1986) and the sisters “Our Lady of Fatima” and “Our Lady of Lourdes” both in 1987. Aboitiz Shipping meanwhile also entered the RORO race in 1989 with the “SuperFerry 1”.

For a short time it was Gothong Shipping and Sweet Lines that was battling for superiority in the RORO field. However, in 1988 Sulpicio Lines added 3 big RORO liners that dwarfed all previous examples starting with the “Filipina Princess”, then one of the biggest and fastest ROROs in the world, the “Nasipit Princess” and the “Tacloban Princess”. They also added in that year the “Cagayan Princess”. With these additions Sulpicio Lines guaranteed they can never be headed in the RORO field and that stood true until WG&A came along.

Filipina Princess ©Vincent Paul Sanchez

Before the end of the 80’s, a Visayan-Mindanao shipping company also bet big on RORO and this earned the company number 1 in pecking order in that area. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines bought 5 RORO – the “Asia Korea” (1987), the “Asia Thailand” (1987), the “Asia Japan” (1988), the “Asia Brunei” (1989) and the “Asia Taiwan” (1989). They disposed some ROROs later (but always with replacements) until their progress was impeded with the creation of Cebu Ferries Corporation.

Meanwhile, smaller ROROs also sprouted in the same period in the provincial routes starting with the “Princess of Antique” (1985). Among the others are “Danilo 1” (1987) and “Danilo 2” (1988), now the “Lite Ferry 1” and “Lite Ferry 2”, respectively, the “Dona Isabel II” (1988) which was later known as “Bantayan” and now “Siquijor Island 2”, the “Princess Mika” (1988), the “Luzviminda” (1988), the ‘Stephanie Marie” (1989) of Aleson Shipping in Zamboanga, etc. In Batangas the likes of “Sto. Domingo” (1988) and “Viva Penafrancia 3 (1989) came and this was followed by a slew of Domingo Reyes ROROs in the next years until they dominated that port.

Lite Ferry 2 ©James Gabriel Verallo

With that big statement of Sulpicio in 1988 the other long-distance liner companies have to respond and bigger and faster RORO liners came in the 90’s. William Lines created their “Mabuhay” line of luxury RORO liners and aided with their “Maynilad’. Aboitiz Shipping created their “SuperFerry” line. Gothong Shipping converted two RORO cargo ships and out came the “Our Lady of Sacred Heart” and “Our Lady of Medjugorje” augmented by the their big “Our Lady of Akita”. Negros Navigation continued their “Saints” series and out came the “Sta. Ana” (1988), the “Princess of Negros”, the “San Paolo” and the beautiful “St. Francis of Assisi” to be followed by the sisters “St. Peter the Apostle and “St. Joseph the Worker”. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines was not able to keep pace and soon dropped out of shipping in 1994. Also dropping out of passenger shipping were the lesser long-distance ferry companies which were not able to refleet to RORO. These were the Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping.

Our Lady of Medjugorje folio ©John Michael Aringay

Sulpicio meanwhile did not rest on their laurels in the first half of the 90’s. They topped their “Filipina Princess” with the “Princess of the Orient” (1993) and they also rolled out the formidable “Princess of Paradise”, the speed queen of the era. Also added to their fleet was the “Princess of the Pacific” and the lesser “Manila Princess” and “Tacloban Princess”. At the middle of the 90’s there was no question then which was biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

There was also no question that the previous decade ended with ROROs already beginning to dominate long-distance passenger shipping. However in other provincial ports, save for Batangas maybe, the RORO is not yet dominant.

The Sulpicio Lines hegemony of the early 90s suddenly changed with the merger of 3 major shipping companies to form the “William, Gothong and Aboitiz” or WGA which suddenly topped the fleet of Sulpicio even though it remanded lesser and older ships to subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corp. CFC then became the scourge of the Visayas-Mindanao shipping companies, most of which except for Trans-Asia Shipping were just in the very beginning of the RORO era like their Zamboanga counterparts.

Among those absorbed by the merger were the ships then underway or under refitting like “SuperFerry 12”, “Our Lady of Akita” which became “SuperFerry 11” and later “Our Lady of Banneux”, “Our Lady of Lipa”, “Mabuhay 5” and “Mabuhay 6” which later became the “SuperFerry 9” and “Our Lady of Good Voyage”, respectively. In the year of that merger, Sulpicio Lines responded with the “Princess of the Universe” and “Princess of the World” and Nenaco responded with the “San Lorenzo Ruiz” and the “St. Ezekiel Moreno”.

The gap between WG&A and Sulpicio Lines and Nenaco was actually narrowing before the end of the millennium as WG&A was intent of selling their “excess” and old ships and it not add any ship to their fleet until 2000. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines rolled out the “Princess of the Ocean” and “Princess of the Caribbean”, both in 1997 and the grand “Princess of New Unity” in 1999. Nenaco also added what turned out to be their flagship, the “Mary, Queen of Peace” in 1997.

Princess of New Unity ©britz444
Mary, Queen of Peace ©Rodney Orca

In the provincial routes and ports the millennium ended with the RORO becoming dominant already. On its heels came the long-distance buses and trucks and the delivery trucks of the trade distributors. It can also be said that the requirements of these buses and truckers fuelled the growth of the short-distance ROROs connecting the nearer islands.

RORO liners primary carried container vans in trailer beds. Short-distance ROROs meanwhile primarily carried trucks, buses, jeeps and private vehicles. Overnight ROROs however primarily carried cargo LCL (loose cargo loading) or in pallets. Forklifts were the primary means of loading the cargo. Others call this system break bulk.

If the 90’s were marked by vibrancy and rapid expansion in the long-distance, liner section of shipping the past decade was marked by a long steady retreat of local long-distance shipping and with it the ROROs. This retreat was marked by 2 major spasms — the illiquidity of Nenaco and the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 after the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars. ROROs were sold and for varying reasons.

Nenaco can’t sustain its expanded route system and their ROROs were laid up and threatened with seizure by creditors. WG&A just wanted to get out of routes they deem were not earning enough. Moreover, Aboitiz has to pay off the divestment of William (the Chiongbian family) and Gothong from the merged company. Then world metal prices peaked and they cashed in on the bonanza. Sulpicio Lines meanwhile decided to sell their ships laid-up by the suspension.

Aside from external problems the long-distance shipping industry was also beset last decade by external threats. Early in 2000’s, the long-distance buses and trucks began to challenge the liners. This began in Samar-Leyte-Biliran. The leading shipping company, WG&A immediately retreated and left the three islands. Soon Masbate and Bohol was also under siege by the buses and lost.

A major factor in that development was the deregulation of the bus sector in the Bicol region and Eastern Visayas. The effect is bus companies sprouted like mushrooms, each seeking more routes, giving wider coverage. As a result passengers need not go to the major centers anymore and it offered the convenience of getting off right by their gates. Moreover, it has also the convenience of a daily departure and a wide choice of buses. As deregulated areas the bus companies were to free to offer low fares and freebies like free ferry fare.

In 2003, the overland route to Panay via Mindoro opened. In a short time came the influx of the buses, trucks and jeeps. The shipping routes to that island were soon under siege. If Nenaco’s withdrawal can be excused by their illiquidity, the leading shipping company, WG&A again simply withdrew without much struggle and just held on to Iloilo port where they are under siege again now. Like in Samar-Leyte-Biliran-Masbate-Bohol this Panay withdrawal of WG&A resulted in selling to the breakers of good ROROs for scrap.

Dangay Port, Roxas, Oriental Mindoro ©Mike Baylon

The second major threat that emerged in the last decade was the emergence of regional container lines to major provincial ports. This provided direct access to foreign markets. And once a direct route is established loaded and empty container vans no longer have to be transshipped via Manila. Before this, the transshipment business was a big source of revenue for long- distance shipping.

Now an even more ominous development is the start of the chartering of banana growers of their own container ships. With their own ships they are no longer dependent on the routes of the container lines. Whereas now if a container line has no route to a certain market country of theirs then they still have to transship via Manila and use the local long-distance liners.

Sasa Port, Davao City ©Aristotle Refugio

A minor threat as of now to long-distance ROROs is the emergence of LCTs as carriers of container vans. But a bigger threat is the inroads of long-distance trucking in the Visayas and Mindanao. The root of the problem is the high cost of charges via long-distance shipping and so they lose out.

Budget airlines will also take out some revenues from long-distance shipping. This is not critical because the bread and butter of long-distance shipping is cargo operations.

One beneficiary of these developments is the short-distance RORO sector which makes possible the island-hopping of the trucks, buses, jeeps and private vehicles. This sector is growing consistently while the long-distance sector is shrinking.

Mukas Port ©Raymond Lapus

For the present, the sector of RORO liners is in crisis. Only ten long-distance RORO liners are left sailing in the country as of now.

The overnight RORO ferry sector is yet unaffected. The only affected portion of this is the companies with routes to Mindoro and Romblon.

The ROROs have eclipsed the cruisers. But the growth sectors now are the short-distance and overnight ferry sectors of the ROROs.

WHEN EASTERN VISAYAS SHIPPING LOST TO THE INTERMODAL

Once upon a time it was liners that connected Eastern Visayas to the national capital. Liners from Manila took several routes. There was a route that after touching parts of the present Northern Samar the passenger-cargo ship will swing north to Bicol ports. There was also a route that will just go to ports on the north coast of Samar up to Laoang, which was the jumping-off point for towns on the northeast coast of Samar that were without roads. There was also a route that after docking in Calbayog and/or Catbalogan the ship will swing south to Tacloban or to Cebu. There was also a route that after calling in Tacloban the ship will swing south and pass the eastern seaboard of Leyte on the way to Surigao, Butuan or even Cagayan. And there was a route where the ship will head to several ports on the western seaboard of Leyte island and some will even proceed to Surigao. There was also a route where ships will dock on ports in the present Southern Leyte and the ship will proceed to Surigao and Butuan. There was even a route that will go first to Surigao and the ship will swing north to Cabalian in the present Southern Leyte.

Among the many ports where liners from Manila called then in Eastern Visayas were Borongan, Laoang, Carangian, Allen, Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc, Baybay, Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. Shipping companies from the majors to the minor lines were represented in the eastern Visayas routes and ports. Among them were Compania Maritima, Go Thong and the successors Gothong Shipping, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping, General Shipping, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Philippine President Lines and the latter Philippines Pioneer Lines, Galaxy Lines, Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping. Among the minor shipping companies North Camarines (and NCL and NORCAMCO), N&S Lines, Rodriguez Shipping, Newport Shipping, Eastern Shipping, Bisayan Land Transport and the latter BISTRANCO, Corominas Richards Navigation, Veloso Shipping, Royal Lines and Samar-Leyte Shipping had routes to Eastern Visayas. Amazingly, all those shipping companies are gone now if not the routes in the region and there are no more liners left sailing to Eastern Visayas.

©Gorio Belen

Shipping of goods and transport of people do not and will never go away. The liners are gone now from Eastern Visayas and what replaced them were the intermodal trucks and buses. Liner shipping simply lost decisively and completely to the intermodal transport and one result of this is the emergence of the so-called “ports to nowhere” or ports that have no ships or meaningful ship calls.

The start of this process of decline and loss started one day in 1979 when “Cardinal Ferry 1”, a RORO arrived to connect the ports of Matnog and Allen. Right after her arrival buses from Manila and Samar began rolling. First to be dominated by the intermodal trucks and buses were the ports in the new province of Northern Samar. In five years all the liners were gone there and it looked as if the foundering of the “Venus” of N&S Lines in Tayabas Bay on October 28, 1984 while trying to outrun a typhoon marked the beginning of the closing of the curtains. Soon Calbayog was also lost too to the intermodal.

6611458869_c76f474187_o

For a time the route touching on Catbalogan and Tacloban survived and the last hold-outs were Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, the two strongest shipping companies in the 1980’s. By this time all the minors were gone along with most of the major shipping companies. Many of them floundered in the great financial crisis of the 1980’s and never recovered. It was not just that crisis that torpedoed them. Shipping of copra, the prime cargo from the 1950s dramatically declined in the 1980’s soon after the near-death of the abaca trade in the 1970’s. Abaca was the primary cargo of shipping from the 1880’s up to the 1950’s and copra was the crop that succeeded it. No crop or produce replaced abaca and copra and as for Cavendish bananas and “Manila Super” mangoes those no longer passed through Manila and were brought by reefers and containers direct to Japan and East Asia. Corn trade also suffered a decline because of importation.

Meanwhile, fresh fish from Eastern Visayas no longer passed to the ships as it was transferred to the refrigerated trucks. With overfishing that that happened in the 1980’s even the dried fish industry of Eastern Visayas was almost killed. Coconut oil mills also sprouted in the region and for copra destined for the major oil mills of Southern Tagalog it was already the LCTs that were transporting copra aside from the intermodal trucks. Even charcoal passed on to the trucks and cargo jeeps.

The process of the decline of liner shipping in Eastern Visayas accelerated with the Ramos decree allowing the entry of surplus trucks in Subic. Soon the versatile and powerful wing van trucks were rolling down the highways and crossing thru the Matnog-Allen route and San Juanico bridge. There was no more imperative for CALABARZON factories to ship their products through the dangerous, graft-, extortion- and traffic-ridden North Harbor. They can simply call forwarders with wing van trucks and the trucks will roll immediately unlike in North Harbor where they have to wait for the ship schedule and be on the mercy of the arrastre and port thieves. By the time the cargo is loaded in North Harbor, usually the wing van truck was already finished delivering its load in Eastern Visayas. And the wing van truck was not only faster; it was also cheaper with less handling needed since it can bypass the bodega and go straight to the stores and supermarkets and there is no need for haulers and arrastre service in the destination pier.

Balicurato Port ©Jun Marquez

Liners also lost to the intermodal buses since passengers can just hail or stop the Manila bus right by their gates and in Manila there was no longer a need to fight through the crime-ridden North Harbor and battle the horrendous traffic. The bus was also faster and at the same time cheaper especially since Eastern Visayas was a deregulated area hence there are a lot of buses and fares are discounted almost year-round. And buses leave everyday at many hour slots while liners only sail on certain days. Especially for people of Northern Samar they won’t foolishly go to Calbayog because for the same money and time they will already be in Matnog and Matnog is only 12 hours away from Manila, half of the travel time of the Calbayog liner.

Around the year 2000 I realized that if Sulpicio and WG&A will not cooperate and form a consortium of fast, medium-sized liners then I knew in a short time that they will lose even Leyte island to the intermodal. The threat loomed large since there was a Ramos decree making it easier for bus operators to acquire new units. Entry for new players was also easy because of the deregulated nature of the region. I noticed also that wing van trucks were multiplying fast and that can be easily seen in Matnog port then. Motorcycle carriers were also a constant presence in the roads already along with refrigerated trucks whose cargo are not fish but processed meat and other perishable groceries.

Ormoc Port circa 1996 ©Jorg Behman

Instead, starting in 2000, WG&A were selling liners fast, and to the breakers and without replacement. Of course there was already the pressure on the company because of the declared intention of the Gothong and Chiongbian families to divest (and they must be paid somehow). With this move I knew the game was over. There will be no succor for liner shipping here because by this time Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping had already quit Eastern Visayas passenger shipping and even MBRS Lines who bravely tried Samar again has already retreated.

The odds were tough because the intermodal bus was simply superior in many ways. In southwestern and southern Leyte island even at dawn a passenger just have to leave his baggage by his gate, wait inside his house and the Manila bus will honk and stop. No need to wait long in a port and haggle with porters. And even from that part of Eastern Visayas the total travel time by bus was less and the fare cheaper. Arriving in Manila it is easier to get a connecting ride in Cubao or Pasay and the taxi fare will come out cheaper compared to North Harbor and of course there is the MRT too. Going home to the province there were a lot of attractive buses in Cubao and in Pasay or even in Manila that do not have the hassle of going to the North Harbor.

Then liner shipping in Eastern Visayas came crashing down fast when the “Princess of the Stars” went down in 2008 and passenger operations of Sulpicio Lines was suspended. With the fleet laid up Sulpicio Lines sold the “Tacloban Princess” and the “Palawan Princess” to the breakers and that marked the end of liner shipping for Sulpicio Lines in the region. Not long after that Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also quit Leyte too. Actually, the loss of Masbate to the intermodal transport practically doomed the ATS route because somehow the intermediate port of Masbate  contributed passengers and cargo to the route.

Laid-up Princesses. ©Mike Baylon

For a time there were no more liners in the regions and even container ships are very few. Recently, 2GO tried to revive a route that passes through Romblon, Masbate and Ormoc on the way to Cebu. Many doubt if that route and service will last because it is really very hard now for liners to beat the intermodal if the route distance is almost the same. There is simply a swarm of buses and trucks forming a formidable opposition to the liners and even to the container ships.

This is one region where the triumph of the intermodal was swift and complete. But this is not known in Japan which advises us (for what?) and which still thinks intermodal trucks are only good for 250 kilometers maximum and cannot imagine wing van truck can beat container shipping. Well, sometimes shipping Ph.Ds are funny.