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 Princess of Paradise

In the liner history of the Philippines, there have been ships that were remembered for their sheer speed. One such liner was the “Princess of Paradise” of Sulpicio Lines which was the “Speed Queen” of liners from 1993 until the early 2000s. She was capable of over 21 knots sustained and bursts of up to 23 knots. In the Manila-Cagayan de Oro route her 25 hours transit time for the 513 nautical miles distance was unsurpassed and neither was her time of 19.5 hours for the Manila-Cebu route from 1993 (although the record holder here was the “Filipina Princess”, also of Sulpicio Lines, which was capable of up to 25 knots when she was still new here). She might also be the record holder for the Cagayan de Oro-Cebu and Cebu-Nasipit routes which she can do in just a little over 6 hours each.

Many simply remember “Princess of Paradise” for her speed and not knowing she also stands out in other areas among liners. I was a frequent passenger of “Princess of Paradise” and one of the things that impressed me with her was her abundance of amenities and facilities. She probably has the most number of decks among liners that were usable for the passengers with six. She had four full passenger decks plus a weather deck that also serves as a promenade area which also has a playground. The sixth deck was a dance floor and kiosk at the car deck and that unique location was accessible either by stairs or by elevator. In size, she was actually one of the biggest and longest liners to sail our seas.

Princess of Paradise ©Sulpicio Lines Website

One of the prominent features I found in the “Princess of Paradise” was the restaurant for the Economy Section passengers. It was very big which the size of several basketball courts was. It could seat over 500 but since “Princess of Paradise” has a huge passenger capacity, several meal schedules have to be held and priority is by bunk number. Until this day, I can still remember the long lines that form in that restaurant (and the roving steward calling passengers for meals by going around and ringing a bell like those used by ice cream vendors). But passengers can live up with the queue and I guess part of the reason was the tasty meals of Sulpicio Lines which was combined with its unique offering of “unlimited rice”. As long as one has a big tummy capacity one will never go hungry in a Sulpicio ship.

The meals for Tourist Class passengers were served in the big theater-restaurant which was never filled because of its sheer size. It was a nice place, dignified in ambience and not cheap-looking. To me it looks like the area also served as a ballroom in the past with its chandeliers and high ceiling. It was also “unlimited rice” here and waiters rove around asking if one wishes for additional rice. Soup and dessert were always provided and refills of the former were free. Meanwhile, the meals for First Class passengers were served in a smaller restaurant at the uppermost passenger deck which also served as bar and disco. Here the meals were smorgasbord as in “eat all you can”. One can take a whole bowl of salad and the waiters will refill it with a smile. I have always felt the meals alone in First Class were already worth the half the fare if the voyage was via the longer Cebu and Nasipit route.

First Class Restaurant ©Wakanatsu

Aside from the lobby and the foyer above it, the “Princess of Paradise” also has many areas where passengers can while the time and shoot the breeze. One of that was located near the First Class restaurant which was called the “Garden of Eden”. As the name suggests it has a garden setting with tables and artificial trellises to keep out the sun but like in a garden setting raindrops will fall if rain is pouring. There was also a promenade area near the bow and there was a library on the way to that. The outside passageways are also favorite hanging-out places for many passengers. Additionally, the Economy restaurant also doubles as a tambayan or hang-out area. There was also a game room, a beauty parlor, a gift shop, magazine and book for rent corner and many kiosks aboard the ship. The lobby itself is wide with cozy sofas. And there was also the “Lillium Lounge” for upper class passengers.

For entertainment the bar near the theater-restaurant was open as long as there were still customers and I have seen it at times still going strong at 4am in the morning. The theater-restaurant also serves as a night entertainment place after dinner time (the tables were actually different from those used during meals). On half of the times I was aboard there was a live band with singers. To request a song one passes a paper with a bill folded but this was optional. While the night entertainment is going on waiters will be prowling for orders and serving. What I noticed aboard ships is even though hard and mixed drinks are served there is no unruliness. If one gets too loud the hissing of other patrons was enough for all to be reminded of proper decorum.

Princess of Paradise Facilities ©Gorio Belen

My most memorable night there was when a female singer who was based in Japan for many years asked to sing for the crowd and she was really very good and impressive. The hat was overfull of bills and she simply gave it to the band and the singers which were ecstatic with that. She did not take any explaining that she sang for the Japanese for years and really just wished to sing for her kababayans and she serenaded us for two solid hours with the introduction, “Para sa mga kababayan ko”.

“Princess of Paradise” started life as the “Hiryu” in Japan. She was launched on June of 1974 and completed on December of 1974. Her builder was Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and she was built in their Shimoneseki yard. She measured 166.7 meters length over-all (LOA) with a moulded breadth of 22.0 meters. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 8,156 and her deadweight tonnage (DWT) was 2,947. She was equipped with two Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines of 32,000 horsepower which gave her an original speed of 25 knots. She had two controllable pitch propellers (CPPs). In 1985, she was sold to China where she became the “Jian Zhen”. In 1993, she came to the Philippines to Sulpicio Lines.

Hiryu(future Princess of Paradise) ©Wakanatsu

“Princess of Paradise” was equipped with two vehicle ramps, one at the front quarter and one at the rear quarter, both on the starboard, allowing her loading and unloading operations at the same time. She had a RORO capacity of 129 TEUs and 79 cars. Her new Gross Tonnage (GT) was 14,162 and her Net Tonnage (NT) was 4,927. She had a Depth of 13.2 meters making her a very stable ship and I can attest to that that she is barely affected in Panay Gulf even though the wind is blowing hard on her port side.

As a Sulpicio liner, additional decks were added to her and her passenger capacity was increased to 3,259 persons. Her accommodation classes were divided into Royal Suite, Suite, First Class Cabin, Cabin w/o T&B, Tourist de Luxe, Tourist, Economy De Luxe and Economy. All were air-conditioned except for the Economy. The suite and cabin classes were entitled to the smorgasbord first class dining. The Royal Suite, however, were not for the mere mortals and were reserved for the rich Chinese of Cebu. Several times I tried to book that on the first morning of the two-weeks-before reservation window only to be told each time, “Fully booked”.

Princess of Paradise Folio ©John Michael Aringay

For the record, “Princess of Paradise” was just one of three liners ever in the Philippines that had a capacity of over 3,000 persons (the other were “Princess of the Orient” and “Princess of the Universe”). She was also just one of three liver ever in the country that had engines of over 30,000 horsepower (the others were “Mary Queen of Peace” and “Filipina Princess”).

Her route ever since she was fielded was Manila-Cagayan de Oro-Cebu-Manila-Cebu-Nasipit-Cagayan de Oro-Manila every week. She was one rare liner which did just one route on her entire service in our seas. In the early 2000’s, she had some engine troubles and after repair she was no longer as fast as before and her speed was exceeded by some of the newly-fielded liners but not by much.

Her liner days suddenly ended on June of 2008 when the flagship “Princess of the Stars” of her company capsized in a strong typhoon resulting in a hideous casualty count. With the tremendous public uproar, all the liners of the company were subsequently suspended from sailing and tough conditions were attached for the company to continue passenger operations. In this development, “Princess of Paradise” never sailed again and was just laid up in Pier 7 in Mandaue together with other ships of the Sulpicio Lines fleet.

Princess of Paradise at Cebu Pier Siete ©Aristotle Refugio

One night late in 2009 she quietly disappeared from her Mandaue anchorage. Many hopefully thought she was just in a shipyard somewhere for refitting. But time passed and she was never seen again. Much later, the confirmation came that she was broken up in Xinhui, China on December of 2009.

“Princess of Paradise” was part of the carnage of Sulpicio liners in the aftermath of the loss of the “Princess of the Stars” and the subsequent suspension of the Sulpicio liners. This incident lowered by nearly half our liner fleet and many routes were lost in the aftermath which were never restored again. As of today, there are no more Sulpicio passenger ships left.

Princess of Paradise at Mactan Channel ©Wakanatsu and Toshihiko Mikami