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 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.

The RORO Cargo Ships of Sulpicio Lines Are All Gone Now

When Sulpicio Lines acquired big (by local standards) RORO Cargo ships in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I thought they were hoarding some ships that can be later converted in ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ships in the mold of what Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) did when they were able to come up with the beautiful Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan (and none would have thought that were their origins) and sister ships. I do not know what truly were their plans but if that was their intention then events soon overtook them when in the new millennium the bottom fell out of passenger liner shipping when budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks drew away passengers and cargo from the liners. This was shown when passenger capacities of the newly-fielded liners went down in the new millennium to 2,000 from 3,000 plus before and “carferries” that came had their two cargo decks just retained.

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The Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Britz Salih

The RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines I am talking about were the ships known as Sulpicio Express Uno, Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres. The three, if compared to the sister ships of CAGLI which went to WG&A were a little bigger and a little faster although all were single-engined which is the mark of cargo ships including RORO Cargo ships. If they have been converted into ROPAX ships they would have been as big as SuperFerry 1, SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 although a little slower.

The first of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Uno which arrived in 1997. This ship was the former Hokuto in Japan and she was built by Shin Yamamoto Shipbuilding in Kochi yard, Japan in 1980 with the ID IMO 8005733. Hokuto measured 129.9 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,176 tons and she had a service speed of 17 knots. This RORO Cargo ship has a bridge at the front and cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the quarter-stern, all features that will be very good had she been converted into a ROPAX ship.

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Sulpicio Express Uno by Aris Refugio

The second of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Dos which arrived here five years later in 2002. This ship was known as the Hokuo Maru in Japan and she was built by Shin Kurushima Hiroshima Dockyard Company in Akitsu, Japan in 1988 with the ID IMO 8817265. Her external measurements were 136.0 meters by 20.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 4,433 with a service speed too of 17 knots. She too had a bridge at the front with a cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the stern. She looks much like the Sulpicio Express Uno in the superstructure. With the same breadth I even wonder if she and Sulpicio Express Uno were actually sister ships. Even the placements of their ramps were the same.

The last of the three RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines to come was the Sulpicio Express Tres which also came in 2002. This ship was known as the Honshu Maru in Japan and she was built by Imabari Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan in 1989 with the ID IMO 8817071. She measured 128.5 meters by 20.4 meters and her gross tonnage was 4,695 and she had a service speed of 17 knots too. The ship also had a quarter-bow ramp and a stern ramp. Her difference though from the other two RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines was in having the bridge amidship. A position of the bridge amidship was not really a disqualification if she was intended for conversion into a ROPAX ship as shown by some local examples here like the Butuan Bay 1 of CAGLI although it might look a little ungainly.

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Sulpicio Express Tres by Aris Refugio

The three were almost of the same size and they had the same service speeds coming from single engines that average 10,000 horsepower which is a little bigger than the engines of the CAGLI sister ships. As built, all had two car decks. If converted all could have had one single cargo deck and three passenger decks with probably a passenger capacity of about 1,500. Like the CAGLI sister ships they might have had a service speed here of 16 knots or maybe a little better. They will be little slower than most big liners then but still acceptable and comparable to some of the newer but slower liners like the SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the San Paolo of Negros Navigation Company. Well, the service speed here of Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje was also 16 knots so that was acceptable.

One intriguing comparison I saw was with the Ozamis Bay 1, also of CAGLI. This former RORO Cargo ship that was converted into a ROPAX ship has external measurements of 130.3 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,545 tons which are almost the same as the three Sulpicio Expresses. I even wonder if she was a sister ship of Sulpicio Express Uno and Sulpicio Express Dos. However, her bridge was amidship and she was not converted beautifully. Hence, she did not look good and her passenger capacity was small at 601 persons. However, since she had 13,400 horsepower on tap she had a higher design speed at 19.5 knots.

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Ozamis Bay 1 by James Gabriel Verallo

The three Sulpicio Express ships were not converted into ROPAX ships and so they just served as RORO Cargo ships and doing what a container is doing except that she takes in container vans RORO (Roll on, Roll Off) in trailers compared to the LOLO (Lift On, Lift Off) method of the regular container ships. The three were in the container van trade and were never used to take in vehicles that were crossing the islands. But being faster the three really deserved a new series in Sulpicio Lines that is apart from the old Sulpicio Container (Sulcon) series of cargo ships.

In such method of carrying container vans, the three RORO Cargo ships became inefficient compared to the regular container ships. One, using trailers which are called “chassis” in the trade is additional investment and expense (and that also includes the trailer caddies). Second, unlike the regular container ships the RORO Cargo system of stowage takes more space as the container vans can’t be stacked one atop the other with no space in between the container vans. The loading and unloading might have been faster but all types of container ships here don’t really rush from port to port. Moreover, the engine sizes of the RORO Cargo ships are significantly larger than the regular container ships for the same length. They might have been faster but as mentioned before they don’t really rush as having enough cargo really takes time because there are simply too many bottoms. So the speed advantage is just negated.

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Sulpicio Express Dos as Span Asia 15 by Mike Baylon

When they were not converted into ROPAX ships, I was even wondering what was the reason Sulpicio Lines kept them for too long, in my view. Well, of course, Sulpicio Lines has no penchant for selling ships and especially to the breakers for as long as it still has economic value. Their only consolation then was they had the fastest cargo ships hereabouts (before the arrival of the faster RORO Cargo ships of Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC).

Two of the three still passed to the new name of Sulpicio Lines, the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) where the Sulpicio Express Dos became the Span Asia 15 and the Sulpicio Express Tres became the Span Asia 16 in 2013.

The three was a good view when they are in port or near the port. They were bigger than the regular container ships, they were taller and they look different and even their long cargo ramps seem to be an attraction. Maybe a few even had in their minds that the superstructure is near that of a ROPAX ship (and they were not wrong).

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Sulpicio Express Uno not sailing before her sale

When Sulpicio Lines began selling their passenger ships in the aftermath of the sinking of their Princess of the Stars and began buying container ships in their place, I somehow felt that the three RORO Cargo ship will also go somewhere down the line. With the size of the new container ships of Sulpicio Lines, it was obvious they were going for efficiency. They were no longer competing for the biggest or the fastest like before. Some container ships of Oceanic Container Lines were even bigger than theirs.

In October of 2013, the oldest of the three, which had already reports of engine trouble, the Sulpicio Express Uno was beached and broken up in in the ship-breaking capital of the world which is Alang, India. Then, in November of 2015, the Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres were broken up in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The two did not even reach 30 years of age and there were not yet reports of engine troubles from them. Sulpicio Lines just wanted to change ships for more efficiency and they had to go, sadly.

Now, the new Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC), the new name of Sulpicio Lines doesn’t have a RORO Cargo ship anymore. All they operate and all they have now are smaller container ships that are just fit for the container demand on them.

Sad to see the three go.