Maritime Hull Losses and Its Lack of Connection to the Age of the Ship

Maritime accidents like collisions are fairly common but that kind of accident does not necessarily result in sinking. Most actually end up with the ships just having dents in their hulls. Capsizing also happens but not all ships that capsize actually sink though they might be touching the sea bottom (because it is in shallow waters). Government authorities are wont to use the term “sinking” but I prefer not to use that term in describing maritime events that results in dead ships because not all ships that figured in maritime accidents actually sink.

The term I prefer to use is “maritime hull losses” since sinking is not the only cause of sailing ships ending up as dead ships. Like fire on the ship that does not sink or beaching of the ship to save the passengers and crew or even wrecking to escape the wrath of the sea. In calamitous events like those, the ship lies over land or might still have buoyancy but the ship ends up dead because it is Beyond Economic Repair or BER. Usually the ending of those three events I mentioned is the breaking up of the ship. To repeat, the ship ends up dead but it did not actually sink.


Photo Credit: Joel Bado

Sinking is also not an irreversible event. There are sinkings where the ship was refloated after. It can be done if it is in shallow waters and near the shore. Some of the refloated ships are repaired and still sail after that. But many are refloated just to be broken up. The steel of the ship though sunk is still valuable as scrap metal.

I have a database of 350 plus ships from the conclusion of World War II that ended up as maritime hull losses. I suspect this is far from complete since the distribution is skewed in favor of the recent years. What that probably means is there was under-reporting or paucity of reporting in our earlier years or records were lost. This is much possible since many of our ships have IMO Numbers and not all were built by the mainstream shipyards and those are barely covered by the international maritime databases. And the listing of local authorities including MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard is even more lacking than the international maritime databases.


Photo Credit: Vince Emille Malazarte

My database of 350 plus maritime hull losses does not include motor bancas unless it is really significant or really big. There are no fishing bancas included and very few steel-hulled fishing vessels are included. And to think that among ship categories fishing bancas and motor bancas will probably rank Number 1 and Number 2 in terms of maritime hull losses and most of them are outright sinking. These are vulnerable crafts and fishing vessels can be caught by storms in the seas because historically PAGASA in not good in making local forecasts (they can only do regional, provincial or city forecasts unlike international weather sites and maritime weather services). Motor bancas can be caught too even without a storm as the wind and waves on the other side of the island might be different from where they came.

The causes of the 350 maritime hull losses can be roughly divided into the following:

  1. Foundering

  2. Wrecking

  3. Grounding that resulted in BER

  4. Capsizing and sinking

  5. Capsizing but not sinking (but BER)

  6. Collision and sinking

  7. Fire, both sunk and not sunk (but BER)


Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Foundering almost always happens in a storm or typhoon when the ship takes in an excess of water in the hull making it lose it balance. In such case the cargo or the rolling cargo can shift and cause a list. If the pumps fail or it can’t function because of the list it is usually goodbye to the ship already. Foundering can also be caused by the ship’s engine conking out in a storm. In such cases the ship cannot maneuver and will take in water faster. If the ship can’t bail out water fast enough freeboard is lost and soon water will begin entering through spaces that cannot really be sealed enough (and that is why it was already proven that high sides to a ship is a plus for survival). Foundering can be technically called a navigation error. In the main it will not connote that the ship is already old unless the failure of the engine was the primary cause of foundering. But then engine failure can also be caused by shoddy maintenance which is not necessarily old age.


Photo Credit: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Wrecking is usually an emergency maneuver of a ship to escape a frothing sea it cannot survive. It is much better than foundering because most of the lives in the ship is saved while in foundering lucky is the soul that can survive the roiling seas that made victim of their ship. And besides in wrecking the remains of the ship can still be salvaged. However, in wrecking there is so much damage in the hull, propeller, rudders and other parts of the ship that it becomes BER especially if the hull is breached in beaching and takes in water. Even without breaching of the hull a storm can also pour so much water into the ship. Wrecking is not be a navigation error and there is also no link to the age of the ship.


Photo Credit: Salvtug and John Carlos Cabanillas

In grounding, the ship touched bottom while running or hit a rock while sailing. Grounding is certainly a navigation error and it has no connection to the age of the ship unless it was caused by the failure of the steering mechanism. Sometimes grounding are suspected to be an attempt to wreck the ship to just collect insurance but grounding is not common the recent years. Many ships ground actually but few suffer hull breaching that is enough for the ship to be declared BER.


Photo Credit: Aris Refugio

In capsizing and sinking, there might be a storm or there might not. Sometimes a ship will be hit by a rogue wave, then list if the cargo shifts (rolling cargo is prone to this) and later capsize or is beached. Sometimes there will be a hole that let water into the hull but was only usual in the decades past when hull strength is not yet tested during drydocking. At times a ship will be lost at sea without another ship able to assist and the presumption will first be “missing” and then capsizing and sinking if there is no storm in the vicinity and sufficient time has passed and there is no more sighting of the ship. [It is considered foundering if there was a storm in the vicinity.] In most cases it cannot be connected to the age of the ship unless the hull simply developed a hole. Breaking of the hull into two is not even considered automatically due to old age as the ship might still be new but there was a design defect.


Ships can also capsize but not sink. These happens when the ship is anchored near the shore in shallow waters, moored in the docks or was even in a shipyard. Sometimes the cause is a storm or a typhoon but since the ship is not navigating then it is not called foundering but instead it is called capsizing. A ship capsizing while moored might have damage that could be considered BER. Events like this also have no direct correlation to the age of the ship unless the previous failure is associated with the age of the ship like perhaps the steering mechanism having a mechanical failure or simply dropped to the sea.


Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

In collision and sinking the hull of the ship is breached letting water in and making the ship lose balance and buoyancy. If the ship goes down fast then many lives can be lost especially if it happens at night. This has also no direct correlation to the age of the ship since the ramming ship does not ask first what is the age of the ship being rammed. It can be new, it can be old.



Photo Credit: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In cases of fire, the ship might sink or might not. If it did not and it resulted in a hull loss it is because the point of BER was reached. This usually happens if the fire started in the engine room fire or a large percentage of the hull of the ship burned especially if it included the bridge. In sustained high temperatures, the superstructure of the ship is compromised and sometimes buckles. In all the 7 cases this might be the case which has the nearest connection to age but it might also just be simple poor maintenance on the part of the shipping company or even weak response of the firefighting crew

There is a small percentage among the 350 plus maritime hull losses of being bombed or there was an explosion or the ship was lost in enemy action (in Vietnam). Again these three cannot be directly connected to the age of the ship.


Photo Credit: Infolagoon and Ramiro Aranda Jr.

So I really wonder about this plan of Secretary Tugade of culling ships that are 35 years old. Definitely, there is no empirical or historical evidence supporting that. As the shipowners pointed out there is no rule in the IMO (International Maritime Organization) or anywhere that ships over 35 years old must be retired. They are only retired if they can no longer meet inspection or qualification requirements.

The way I observe Secretary Tugade, it is obvious he does not know ships or maritime issues. Maybe he should quit listening to the whispers of Secretary Cusi who has vested interest in shipping and maybe he should study ships first and maritime issues. I am sure his lawyer training did not include maritime courses.

Early in President Duterte’s term I expressed fears against fiats especially fiats that favor vested interests. We might see one developing now.

M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

The MV St. Thomas Aquinas was a former 2GO liner that was rammed on the side by the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) just south of Mactan Channel near Lauis Ledge lighthouse on the night of August 16, 2013. She sank in a matter of minutes because the PSACC ship feared being a sinking casualty and she pulled back allowing water to rush inside the hull of St. Thomas Aquinas (this is what usually happens when there is an underwater gash in the hull). A total of 137 persons died in the collision and a large oil spill affecting Mactan island resulted. St. Thomas Aquinas was better known locally as SuperFerry 2 and she is included in the book “The Great Passenger Ships of the World” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose (the original title was in German), a book where the Philippine Ship Spotter Society (PSSS) was a contributor.

M/V Superferry 2 folio ©John Aringay

St. Thomas Aquinas started life as the Ferry Sumiyoshi of Meimon Car Ferry K.K. of Kitakyushu, Japan. She was built in the Onomichi yard of Onomichi Zosen and she was the sister ship of Ferry Hakozaki which was better known locally as SuperFerry 5 and later as the St. Joan of Arc of 2GO (this ship is still sailing). Ferry Sumiyoshi’s keel was laid on August 1, 1972, launched on December 19, 1972 and completed on March 20, 1973. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 138.6 meters and her Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP) was 128.0 meters with a Breadth of 22.15 meters. Originally, her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 7,270 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 2,596.
Ferry Sumiyoshi was powered by two Mitsubishi-MAN diesels (MAN engines built under license by Mitsubishi in Japan) of a combined 15,200 horsepower which gave her a service speed of 19 knots. She carried the international ID IMO 7304663 and she was a RORO-Passenger (ROPAX) Ferry. The ship originally had one and a half passenger decks, two and a half cargo decks, a full bridge deck and vehicle ramps at the bow and at the stern. Her original passenger capacity was 900 and she was first fielded in the Osaka-Shinmoji route in Japan.

Ferry Sumiyoshi ©Fakta om Fartyg

In April of 1992 she came to the Philippines to become the Aboitiz SuperFerry 2 (also SuperFerry II) of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation where she was converted into a 4-deck multi-day passenger liner originally serving the Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route (displacing the SuperFerry 1 in the latter port of call). She was the first liner fielded again by Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the Manila-Cebu route after the shipping company gave up on that route for paucity of suitable liners (they were however serving the Cebu-Leyte route).

Superferry 2 ©Britz Salih

As reclassified, she had a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 11,405, a DWT of 2,947 and a passenger capacity of over 2,643 divided into the following classes: Stateroom, Cabin (for 2 and 4), Tourist, Deluxe and Economy. Adding weight her depth rose to 8.2 meters and her service speed dropped to 17.5 knots which meant a transit time of 22 hours in the Manila-Cebu route. Having a folding rear mast she can pass under the Mactan bridge. Her car deck can accommodate 108 trailers (she loads “CHA-RO” or container vans mounted on trailers and parked separate from the tractor heads).

Superferry 2 ©Gorio Belen

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not provide free meals to the passengers then but the fares were a little lower compared to competition to compensate for that. A passenger then will have his choice of what to eat. One orders meal a la carte in the cafeteria that was centrally located which was open from early morning to just past midnight. Passengers can also lounge here and while away time and various drinks can be ordered any time. The first class passengers have their separate restaurant. There was also a disco-karaoke and a coffee shop.

The ship featured a lounge for upper class passengers and a lobby and front desk for everyone along with other amenities and offerings like a video game arcade, a kiosk and books/magazines and board games for rent and a beauty salon. The ship sides were open and served as passageway and it also served as a viewing deck and smoking area. The sun deck of the ship also serves as a promenade area.

Superferry 2 interior ©Wakanatsu

On January 1, 1996 she passed on to the merger company William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and in the renaming of the ferries of the merged fleet she retained the same name as WG&A decided to use the SuperFerry brand with the lesser ferries branded the “Our Lady”, a brand from Gothong Shipping. Initially she held on to her same route but a little later she did other routes (but not the prime Cebu route). Then she was paired with SuperFerry 5 to do rotational routes and a little later more this pairing included the SuperFerry 9 (in rotational pairings WG&A matches the ferries in speed and size). Doing rotational routes that varied over time along with differing assignments and schedules were a WG&A trademark which was hard to track unless one monitors their advertisement in the dailies.

Superferry 2 in WG&A livery ©Wakanatsu

With the divestment of the Chiongbian and Gothong families in WG&A (with the notable exception of Bob Gothong), the company was renamed the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) in 2003. With sizable sell-off of ships (liners, overnight ferries and container ships), ATS found themselves lacking container capacity especially when they sold off SuperFerry 15, 16, 17 and 18. Part of their remedy aside from chartering container ships was to convert 4-deck liners into liners with only two passenger decks with two container decks. This halved the passenger capacity of the converted ships but almost doubled the container capacity. ATS thought this was the correct solution to declining passenger patronage and lack of container capacity (but later developments proved them wrong).

As converted, the passenger capacity of SuperFerry 2 dropped to only 904 with only two Staterooms and two Cabins. With some engine efficiency adjustments the service speed went up to 18.5 knots (with a maximum equaling her old 19 knots) and with only a few passengers the ship tended to be very cold at night especially when it is raining. The ship moreover became an all-airconditioned ship. Her Net Tonnage (NT) dropped to 5,869. As a two-passenger deck ferry there was much less space for passengers to roam and amenities and facilities were less. The dining area of the upper and lower classes became shared.

Superferry 2 ©Mike Baylon

Later on with the buy-out of Aboitiz Transport System by Negros Navigation using the China-ASEAN Fund loan in 2012 she passed on to the newly merged company 2GO. She was renamed as the St. Thomas Aquinas and she did the Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga and Manila-Cebu-Nasipit routes among other always-changing routes and schedules. In 2GO she was still speedy but with more emphasis put on the declining cargo and because of that like other ships in the fleet she tended to be late because of delayed departures waiting for cargo.

St Thomas Aquinas in 2GO livery. ©Mike Baylon

To make up for lost time because she was four hours late, she was speeding in the early night of August 13, 2013 in Hilutungan Channel and in rounding the southern coast of Mactan island. The area is notorious for radar scatter because of the ship facing land formation with hills, towers and plenty of buildings and vehicles. Also rounding Mactan island the radar won’t give an image of the ships exiting Cebu port and Mactan Channel. The early night too is the peak departure time of ships leaving Cebu. Nearing Lauis Ledge and the reefs of Cordova, Mactan and the narrows and shoals off Talisay, Cebu, the ship barreled into the narrowing shipping lane at over 16 knots when ships were expected to do 15knots or less in that area where the shipping line is curving like in a continuous arc.

At that time Sulpicio Express Siete with an ice-classed bow (reinforced as she was originally a Baltic Sea ship) was exiting Mactan Channel at slow speed. Meanwhile, Trans Asia 9 which was late in departure was catching up and asked permission to overtake on the right or starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete. The shallows of Talisay were looming ahead (a ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines made a mistake here and ended up high and dry). So Sulpicio Express Siete gave her a wide berth and moved to the middle of the channel and slowed down a bit as she will be veering right soon as she was headed in the direction of Dumaguete while Trans Asia 9 is headed to Cagayan de Oro.

While the gap between Sulpicio Express Siete and Trans Asia 9 was getting bigger, the late-running Oceanjet 8, a fastcraft of Ocean Fast Ferries speeding from Tagbilaran moved into the gap between the ships and went into the starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete which was not her correct lane and in violation of maritime rules of the seaway. This had the effect of delaying of the veering of Sulpicio Express Siete in her correct lane in a shipping line with divider without marking buoys (AIS showed that at the time of passing of Trans Asia 9 Sulpicio Express Siete was slightly to the left of the median).

After Oceanjet 8 passed and when Sulpicio Express Siete was veering into her lane a reckless maneuver was made – St. Thomas Aquinas sped up and tried to follow Oceanjet 8, a classic case of brinkmanship. Ships don’t slow down and can’t maneuver like cars and the reinforced bow of Sulpicio Siete scraped against the hull and the passenger ramp of St. Thomas Aquinas, cut it up to below the waterline near the stern and the engine room. In moments, St. Thomas Aquinas had a fatal wound and power was knocked out and complete darkness fell in St. Thomas Aquinas with the bow on Sulpicio Express Siete lodged inside the rear hull of the 2GO liner. Some passenger took advantage of this momentary coupling of the two ships and jumped to the bow of the container ship. They were among the luckier ones because in minutes it was obvious their liner was stricken with a mortal blow worse than the Italian liner Andrea Doria.

Timeframe of collision © Casagan

While the Andrea Doria had a good design that limited water intrusion and which kept her afloat for many hours St. Thomas Aquinas was a RORO which lacked watertight doors and compartments. When Sulpicio Express Siete reversed screws and disengaged she immediately developed a dangerous list and she capsized within minutes not affording enough time for proper evacuation which was made more difficult by the darkness. Trans Asia 9 also did not come to the rescue unlike the French liner Ile de France which illuminated Andrea Doria and launched lifeboats to the rescue.

Immediately after the accident charges and counter-charges of fault and recriminations were hurled and mainly by 2GO and netizens were quick to blame PSACC, the former Sulpicio Lines. Their former bad reputation hurt PSACC’s case in the bar of public opinion and it was even made worse by the fact that it was their ship which rammed and sank the other and was beyond the median line initially. Almost to a man almost everybody was blaming PSACC except maybe PSSS and a few others including mariners who understand COLREG (Collision Regulations) which governs rules of the road at sea. A Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SBMI) made an investigation that drew mainly on eyewitness account which tend to be biased depending of which ship they were boarded. In PSSS we noted there was almost no use of AIS which is the ship’s transponder and St. Thomas Aquinas was visible because their MMSI module was active and that gave her location, direction, speed and identity along with other data. It was her AIS which said she was overspeeding and she crossed the bow of the PSACC ship, a maneuver not permitted unless the other ship gave permission (this was also established later by the official investigation report).

Damage on Sulpicio Express Siete ©John Cabanillas

After over a year, the Philippine body tasked with determining fault, the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) determined liabilities and this was affirmed by their supervisory body, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). It sidestepped a purely COLREG-based decision and instead looked at other technicalities. The result said the St. Thomas Aquinas was mainly at fault because it held that ships moving out of port have priority over incoming ships. The report also noted a collision could have been avoided if both ships slowed down especially since they are not in radio contact.

Up to now the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas still lay near the collision site and lays precariously by her side in a sea ledge like the Costa Concordia. The maritime authority has already decided that 2GO should remove her as she poses hazard to navigation. Meanwhile, the municipality of Cordova is pressing payment for damage to their mangroves and fishing ground due to the oil spill in the aftermath of the sinking. Victims are still seeking further compensation while the two captains directly involved in the collision remain suspended. The other ships involved were not called to bar to answer for their actions.

Pumping oil from the remains of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

Now, the liner St. Thomas Aquinas is just a memory but a bitter one at that especially for the victims who are not holding on to solid hopes as deadly maritime accidents in the Philippines take the courts up to over a generation to make a final decision.