The Sweet RORO

Many, when talking about the Sweet RORO of Sweet Lines Incorporated which is pf Bohol origin talk about her technicals and that is not wrong as there is nothing incorrect in admiring the technical merits of a ship especially that of a luxury liner. But to me I also tend to look at the historical position of things and how they interacted as I am also keen on the historical perspective of the ferries when they came and also their roles. After all, ferries make the shipping companies, at least in the early decades of our shipping history. And, it is in the great liners in which shipping companies are identified by the public.

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The Sweet RORO in original livery. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

The Sweet RORO came to Sweet Lines when from the peak of the company a great slide was already happening them. This came from a probable mistake when in the late 1970’s the company decided they would henceforth just buy small liners. It was a great reversal from the previous mantra of the company that they will bring great liners, the prime examples of which were the highly regarded Sweet Faith and Sweet Home which were former luxury liners even in Europe. Also included in that was the Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany.

That bad decision came when the top liners of the company, the aforementioned Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home were already graying and if analyzed technically were already threatening to quit in a few years time (and they subsequently did). Coupled with that that the former cargo-passenger ship from Europe, the Sweet Bliss, the Sweet Life/Sweet Dream, the Sweet Lord/Sweet Land and the Sweet Love which buoyed the company early on and helped in their rise were also growing old as they were also built in the 1950’s like the Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home and ferries then were not known to exceed 30 years of life as the metallurgy and technology were still not the same as today when ferries normally exceed 40 years of service life here. Spare and surplus parts are easy to find today and CNC milling of parts are already common whereas that was not the case of 40 years ago. When that decision to just acquire small ferries was made the six liners of Sweet Lines from Europe were already approaching 30 years old save for the Sweet Home (but then this luxury liner, the biggest of her time was actually the first to go because of mechanical problems).

The year 1980 came and one of the biggest crisis in local liner shipping came. This happened when a lot of liners were suddenly laid up because the container ships came into full force all at once and suddenly the old passenger-cargo liners no longer had enough cargo to carry and it was actually cargo which is decisive in the profitability of a passenger-cargo ship. Before the arrival of the container ships of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Central Shipping Corporation (the cargo shipping company of Sweet Lines), Sea Transport Company, Negros Navigation Company and Solid Shipping Lines, it was practically just the passenger-cargo liners which were carrying the cargo in liner routes.

Sweet Home was gone in 1979, sold, and Sweet Faith was also gone the next year in 1980, first laid up then sold to the breakers. The new decade came and Sweet Lines had no ship good enough for the premier Manila-Cebu route which they used to dominate albeit with just a small pull only early in the 1970’s but largely gone as the decade was winding down. What they had left to serve as flagship was the cruiser liner Sweet Grace which was ordered brand-new from West Germany in 1968 but which does not have the speed and the size of the now-dominant fast cruiser liners of that era already.

While Sweet Lines was saddled with such problem William Lines rolled out the half-cruiser, half-RORO Dona Virginia in December 1979 which was the biggest liner in the country when she was fielded and with a speed of 20 knots too like the liner she was replacing, the storied Cebu City which came brand-new just in 1972. Then Sulpicio Lines rolled out the Philippine Princess in 1981 and this liner was nearly as big as the Dona Virginia but not as fast. Sweet Grace was far smaller than the two unlike the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima which was nearly as big as Dona Virginia and Philippine Princess although not as fast as the two. Sweet Grace was also much slower than the three, she cannot even be considered as a fast cruiser liner and so for the first time since Sweet Lines raised the bar in the Manila-Cebu premier route in 1970 with the Sweet Faith, this time it found itself as the laggard and outmatched. And that was where the decision to just buy small liners bit Sweet Lines hard.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Having money from the proceeds of the disposals of Sweet Home and Sweet Faith, Sweet Lines was obliged to look for their replacement and it is forced that it should be a good and a big one. They did not disappoint when the former Ferry Ruby of the Diamond Ferry which plies the Osaka to Oichi route came to them in 1982 (but the seller was a third by the name of Dimerco Line SA of Panama and more on that later). The ship was nearly as big as her main competitors at 117.5 meters length and 4,700 gross register tons and at 18 knots design speed she was not giving away much to her direct competition, the flagships of the other liner companies although she was still the slowest at full trot among the flagships. And so what Sweet Lines emphasized was her being a RORO liner and its swiftness in cargo loading and unloading. However, the claim of Sweet Lines that she was the first RORO liner in the country is incorrect as the Sta. Maria of Negros Navigation Company came earlier in 1980. She, however, was the first big RORO liner in the country if the Dona Virginia is excluded.

When analyzed technically, the Sweet RORO is a leapfrog in technology compared to her main competitors which were mainly cruiser liners, the old paradigm. She was already a full-pledged ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ship unlike the Dona Virginia whereas the Philippine Princess and the Filipinas of Compania Maritima were still cruiser ships . Now these four are all flagships and only four shipping companies were competing seriously in the prime Manila-Cebu route as the others like Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines were no longer in serious contention in that route and the others have practically withdrawn from contention there like Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (but this company later made a comeback in that route). By the way, Negros Navigation Company is not being mentioned here as she was not doing the Manila-Cebu route then.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

But Sweet RORO might have been too much ahead of her time. Loading vehicles was not yet the wont then in her route (and neither now except for brand-new cars headed for car dealers down south). Container vans were mainly carried by the container ships and at that time there were still a lot of XEUs, the 10-foot container vans which can be handled by forklifts or loaded atop the cruisers at their bow and/or stern. Using chassis for container vans was not yet the standard then and so the full advantage of being a RORO or Roll-on, Roll-off ship was not fully realized when a lot of cargo was still palletized or are still carried loose (however, Sweet RORO had advantage over the others in carrying vehicles and heavy equipment down South). It would be nearly a decade later when the TEUs, the 20-foot container vans will be the new standard in cargo loading and by that time the Sweet RORO was already gone.

The Sweet RORO, the former Ferry Ruby was built by Onomichi Dockyard (Onomichi Zosen) in Onomichi, Japan in 1970 (but Sweet Lines says she was built in another yard) as one of the fast overnight ferries of Japan that bypasses their clogged highways then. She was average in size then (but this is not to disparage her) at 117.5 meters in Length Over-all, 107.0 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars, 20.6 meters in Breadth and 4,619 tons in Gross Register Tonnage. She was 1,943 tons in Net Register Tonnage and 1,477 tons in Deadweight Tonnage. This RORO liner was powered by 4 Kawasaki-MAN V8V 22/30ATL diesel engines with a combined 8,080hp which gave her a top speed of 18 knots which was also average for her size during her time. At that power she would have been more economical in fuel than the other flagships.

The stem of the ship was raked and she had transom stern. She was equipped with ramps bow and aft as access to the car deck. The ship has three decks for the passengers, the uppermost one a local addition (and that deck contained a lobby/relaxation room, the First Class bar and disco plus a game room) and abaft of the funnels is a wide open-air promenade area/sun deck. Aside from First Class and Second Class, a part of her Third Class (now known as “Economy”) is also airconditioned. This is because as-built the ship was fully air-conditioned. Her original passenger capacity as refitted was 1,692, one of the highest then among passenger ships in the country. It was broken down into 148 in 1st Class, 144 in 2nd Class, 400 in air-conditioned 3rd Class and 1,000 in non-airconditioned 3rd Class. The 3rd Class occupied the lowermost passenger deck while the First Class and Second Class accommodations and lobbies were on the deck above that and so it is the middle deck.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Like the Sweet Faith before her, the Sweet RORO plied the premier Manila-Cebu route twice a week with a 22-hour sailing time which means a cruising speed of 18 knots for the 393-nautical mile route which is actually her design speed. It seems the policy of Sweet Lines is sail the ship at design speed because that is what they also did with the Sweet Faith. However, running a ship at 100% usually entails a ship’s not living very long. In 1988, Sweet RORO already had trouble with her engines specifically with her crankshaft as one report said and from that time on she already had difficulty sailing and if she did it is at reduced speed. The next year she was already laid up when she was less than 20 years of age. In 1990, she was sent to India for breaking up, a very short career when her two sister ships was still sailing in Greece up to the new millennium.

In 1987, Sweet RORO had a change of ownership but she was still sailing for Sweet Lines even then. She again became a Panamanian ship with the Dimerco Line SA which was the seller of her to Sweet Lines and to me that indicates a possibility that she was not fully paid for by Sweet Lines and so the seller re-acquired her. This was also about the same time that the Eduardo Lopingco group entered Sweet Lines and took over the management. With the entry of Lopingco additional ships came to the fleet but it turned out those were just chartered from the Hayashi Marine Company of Japan . Later, court cases arose after the company was not able to pay the charter to Hayashi Marine because court records show money was diverted by Lopingco to other ventures.

I wonder but I know financial troubles and mismanagement are ship killers especially when the needed maintenance of the ship are no longer made. And running ships at 100% power is parts-hungry and can result in damages to the engine in the long term especially when maintenance is not up to date. A report said that re-engining her was suggested to the company but nothing came out of it. This was already the time that the company was already headed on the way down after it seems that the founding Lim family has already lost control of the company if court filings are to be believed.

Whatever, the Sweet RORO was a big success in the Manila-Cebu route as actually Sweet Lines was a favorite of many especially the Bol-anons that until today many still remember her fondly (people are more attached then to their great liners unlike today that is why there were ship legends then including the Sweet RORO while now there is no such sentimentality anymore). However, it puzzles me why didn’t they extend the route to Tagbilaran given it was their origins and the ship had a long lay-over anyway in Cebu (was Tagbilaran port too shallow for her then?).

She was a fine ship ahead of her time. However, the sad part is she did not last long.

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The Times of Trouble for Philippine Liner Shipping in the Past

In Philippine liner shipping, obviously the first time of trouble was when the Pacific War erupted after Japan attacked the Philippines and the United States. Liners were requisitioned by the US on the promise that it will be replaced when the war ends. The order then was if the ship cannot reach Australia it has to be scuttled to prevent it from falling into the invader’s hands. Most of our liner fleet then was lost to scuttling and to enemy fire. Some of it were captured and were pressed into enemy service and when Japan was already losing they sank into the bottom of the sea due to US submarine and aircraft attacks.

These liners that were lost during the Pacific War were good liners and many were built in foreign shipyards just in the Commonwealth Era which means they were still new. The older ones were mainly built in the 1920’s. And they were not necessarily small. Many of the good liners before the war were in the 80-meter class (when internationally a 120-meter was already grand).

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A prewar liner, the MV Don Isidro (Photo credits: Commerce and Gorio Belen)

When the US replaced our lost fleet as promised the number might have been right but the quality is different. The former “FS” ships were not the equal of our former liners even in size and to be able to use those they have to be converted and refitted first as they were not really liners but basic cargo ships. “FS” meant “Freight and Supply” after all.

Former “Y” ships were also given as replacement and these were former tankers but still a handful were converted to passenger use by removing the tanks. The former “Y” ships were slightly smaller than the former “FS” ships. For the lost regional ships, the US gave as replacement the former “F” ships, both the steel-hulled and the wooden-hulled types. Former minesweepers were also given as replacement. None of them were passenger ships to begin with and so conversion and refitting still had to be done.

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A former “FS” ship (Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

To replace the bigger liners, the US gave Type C1-M-AV1 , Type C1-B and Type N3 ships as replacements but those were also cargo ships and not liners and so they also have to be converted and refitted. None of all these types can match the luxury and comfort of our prewar liners. Were we shortchanged in the deal? I think the answer is obvious. We had purpose-built liners before the war and the replacement were surplus cargo ships that had no use for them anymore because the war has already ended.

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A former C1-M-AV1 ship (Photo by Rufino Alfonso)

The second times of trouble for Philippine shipping was the crisis decade of the 1970’s when continuous devaluation of the peso dominated the economic situation. It was the time that taking out big loans was fraught with danger since nobody can foresee when will be the next devaluation (which means in peso value the loan balloons). Because of this uncertainty and risk, the taking out of loans to order brand-new ships completely stopped. There were no more brand-new ships after the Cebu City of William Lines came out in 1972.

If the mid-1960’s was marked by acquisition of second-hand passenger-cargo ships (most were not really liners) from Europe, in the 1970’s the shipping companies were looking for right direction. Inadvertently, Sweet Lines showed the way with the acquisition of the Sweet Faith in 1970 and the Sweet Home in 1973. This started the era of fast cruiser liners in our seas. However, due to the fogs of uncertainty in the economic climate, few realized this was the new paradigm, the fast cruiser liners.

Sweet Lines ad - "Inimitable Mates" (Sweet Home and Sweet Faith)

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

Among the liner companies, only William Lines took up the challenge early with the Cebu City. In the middle of the 1970’s, Sulpicio Lines followed suit and acquired fast cruiser liners beginning with the Don Sulpicio and Dona Ana. William Lines also kept in step by successively acquiring fast cruiser liners which were named after cities, the Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City, Ozamis City, etc.

What happened then to the other liner companies especially the other top guns? In the decade of the 1970’s, Compania Maritima was already in its death spiral but few realized it then because they were held in such high regard because they have been No. 1 for so long. Actually, there might have a death wish in them already. Compania Maritima never bought another liner after the second-hand but big Luzon in 1970 until their demise in 1984. At the same time, their ships were sinking with alarming regularity and mostly by wrecking.

Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation became heir to the PSNC (Philippines Steam and Navigation Company) fleet and operations. The Laurel-Langley Treaty dictated that in 1974 the Americans no longer have the right to do business here as if they are Philippine nationals (they have a right previously because of the Parity Amendment to the Philippine Constitution). But after 1974, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not buy a liner anymore and just relied mainly on a few small liners plus the trio of liners ordered by Everett Steamship in Japan in 1955 and the former “FS” ships they already had and the once from PSNC. These ships were already showing signs of mortality as they were already entering their fourth decade of service.

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A liner from Everett SS that went to Aboitiz (Photo credit: Aboitiz Transport System)

Sweet Lines, after acquiring liners that were among the biggest and the best for a decade which pulled them up in the totem pole of liners had the puzzling decision to just buy small liners in the later 1970’s. This happened in a situation when their liners from Europe were already over two decades old. In those times due to weaker metallurgy and finishing, 30 years is almost the longest service that can be expected from liners built in the 1950’s and so this means Sweet Lines has a future problem in the 1980’s. Did Sweet Lines think the 1980’s will be better?

The combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, successor companies to the broken-up Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. also had the same policy decision as Sweet Lines, that is to just buy small liners (many can even be just classified as passenger-cargo ships). Meanwhile, the old Escano Lines also stopped buying ships in 1974 like Aboitiz when they acquired the small Katipunan.

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The former MV Katipunan (Photo credit: Edison Sy)

All in all, from 1973, only Sulpicio Lines and William Lines acquired big, fast cruiser liners. Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, Sweet Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation all stopped buying big liners especially the fast cruiser liners (and that type is beyond the means of minor liner shipping companies including Madrigal Shipping). Maybe one reason is the steep cost already of liners because of devaluation, maybe it was the general economic difficulties which produce conservatism in businessmen, maybe it was also procrastination and hoping the next decade will be better.

And so it was not a surprise that in the 1980’s, from a rough equality of the top companies after the break-up of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. in 1972, the liner scene was dominated by Sulpicio Lines and William Lines because they were the only ones which bet on the new ruling paradigm, the fast cruiser liners. The other simply lost their way or maybe even their enthusiasm and were just waiting for better days.

1978 1207 William Lines

Photo credits: Phil. Daily Express and Gorio Belen

I must admire not the depth of the pockets of the two but the Japanese agents which bet and trusted Sulpicio Lines and William Lines. I think that was the critical factor why the two kept getting fast cruiser liners even though the economic climate was not good over-all. Sulpicio Lines continuously acquired retired cruisers from RKK Lines and William Lines from Arimura Sangyo (the later “A” Line). Incidentally, both are Okinawa shipping lines. So their fast cruiser liners competed in Japan and they continued their rivalry here.

Don Sulpicio (Doña Paz) and Doña Ana (Doña Marilyn)

Photo credit: Jon Saulog

The next decade, the 1980’s, was even more difficult and it resulted in the death of so many liner companies, both major and minor. A new leading paradigm will emerge then, the RORO liners. Some majors will awaken from their stupor and try to compete again. Among them were Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. Negros Navigation will also be among them after they also slowed down in buying cruisers (they were not in danger then because their cruisers liners were new and they had a monopoly of Bacolod port).

And that is how the chips broke in the 1970’s. Another time of trouble will happen three decades later but then that is another story worth another article.