A Good Ship Is Gone

The uncle of a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member saw the former SuperFerry 5 (last known as St. Joan of Arc in the Philippines) in Singapore a few months ago in what can be surmised as a one-way trip to a ship-breaking yard somewhere in South Asia. That ship has long been reported for sale and its owner 2GO is just as much willing to dispose of her. The ship’s final fate must have been sealed when the former SuperFerry 16 arrived back in the Philippines in 2015 after having been sold abroad for profit in 2007 at the height of the world metal prices then that was driven by the great China demand when its industrial output and drive to sell to the world hit high gear. 2GO wants a more modern fleet and they have no patience for old and graying ships.

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The former SuperFerry 5 which was known as the St. Joan of Arc in the fleet of 2GO was actually the last of our old generation of liners that was built in the 1970’s and which arrived in the country in the 1990’s. She was the lone wolf after the Princess of the South of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, the former Sulpicio Lines was disposed off in 2015 and the former SuperFerry 2 which was renamed to St. Thomas Aquinas sank in a collision near Mactan island in 2013 and after the former SuperFerry 1 which was renamed to St. Rita de Cascia was sold to China in and after the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were sold to Bangladeshi breakers.

It was not actually the St. Joan of Arc which 2GO wanted to retain longer. It was actually the refitted St. Thomas Aquinas but as fate would have it she tried to test how the hard was the ice-classed bow of the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation or PSACC, the successor company of Sulpicio Lines. The former SuperFerry 5 was not a converted ship to two cargo decks like the St. Thomas Aquinas and hence her container capacity is lower while she can no longer fill her passenger accommodations. This was because passengers have already moved to other means of transportation after the liners became a disappointment when they failed to handle the challenge of the budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks.

I was puzzled how 2GO handled the St. Joan of Arc. She was already long for sale but there were no takers. That was the time when she still had a route to Tagbilaran and Dumaguete from Manila. She was already smokey then but if the experience of her sister ship the St. Thomas Aquinas which has the same engines is used as a guideline then if there was a decision to refurbish her she will still be a better ship. After refitting, the St. Thomas Aquinas was capable of 18.5 knots when to think she was only running at 17.5 knots when she was newly-fielded in the 1990’s. But of course she already had less metal when two passenger deck were removed. The St. Thomas Aquinas was also less smokey than her sister ship after she was refurbished.

I have long hated that policy of 2GO which they called “finding the right size” which is just a euphemism for culling ships and routes when their bean counters find out that they do not contribute to the profitability of the company. You see they are primarily in business and not in real shipping. It is just cold-bloodied calculation and not passion for sailing and moving goods and people. But then they are oblivious to the fact that with their uncertainty in serving a route makes patrons especially shippers look for other carriers. Like when the Cebu Ferry 2 abandoned Surigao. When they came back there was no cargo anymore and they didn’t even bother to deploy the car ramps anymore when we rode her. And ships cannot maintain a route without meaningful cargo. It is different when patrons know a shipping company will maintain the route no matter what. Otherwise, they will be talking to other carriers.

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In recent history, it was the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), its subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) and the latter 2GO which has been the greatest “donors” of passengers and cargo to their competition that the receivers should always give them giant cakes during Christmas as thanks for business they gained without any effort or investment. Actually, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) should have rolled out two bands when Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3 left Cebu for Batangas to become the “Batangas Ferries”. Well, even Cokaliong Shipping Line iNC. (CSLI) also became a beneficiary with the withdrawal of the Cebu Ferries from Surigao, Nasipit, Ozamis and Iligan. Imagine given four major Northern Mindanao ports free.

I just wonder why 2GO can’t give the St. Joan of Arc a permanent route then before they withdraw from the Zamboanga route. When they withdrew from Zamboanga they cited the Abu Sayyaf threat. But then they still sailed their container ships and other shipping companies still continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao. Then they came back to Zamboanga when Abu Sayyaf attacks were continuing and they did not withdraw again until now. So that means they were simply lying the first time around that they withdrew.

When they came back to Zamboanga, it was a Manila-Cebu-Dumaguete route which was later redacted into a Manila-Dumaguete-Zamboanga route, a route longer than a Manila-Iloilo-Bacolod-Zamboanga route. If a route via Dumaguete can be maintained then for sure a route via Iloilo and/or Bacolod can be maintained profitably since Iloilo and Bacolod are both bigger than Dumaguete and the route is shorter. Besides there is no ferry between Iloilo and Zamboanga and there is no bus too while Dumaguete has a bus to Zamboanga and there was also the once-a-week Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines. And it is easy to cross to Dapitan and take a bus to Zamboanga from Dipolog, the next locality.

2GO could have refurbished the St. Joan of Arc and made her a permanent Zamboanga ship. Her size and speed would have been enough for the route and maybe they can even make a twice a week voyage there. And passenger load might have been better if their arrival time was proper. A 5pm arrival is bad as the connecting trips to the minor islands like the Pangutaran group and even Basilan are already gone by the time their ship arrives in Zamboanga. Actually buses to the the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon) direction and the direction of Payao (the Lizamay buses) would have also been gone by that time. I noticed ATS and 2GO are not passenger-friendly with regards to arrivals as many of their arrivals are at night. Right now, three out of their five arrivals in Manila from Cebu are at night and they will force passengers down even when it is already midnight. So they think the streets of Manila are safe at night? Ha ha! That is also the time the taxis make a killing.

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St. Joan of Arc not sailing

2GO does not have the program of the likes of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. and Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. to give their old ships a second lease of life. Those two companies still has many ships built in the early 1970’s like the St. Joan of Arc. And those ships are still creditable and reliable. In the international cruise industry, ships can be refurbished even when they were built decades ago and niche routes and cruising can be found for them. Like if the St. Joan of Arc was refurbished and assigned to Zamboanga permanently even before 2GO withdrew from there before. Or maybe toughened it out and served Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Dapitan continuously with a Manila-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan-Manila route. Well, just wishing but Tagbilaran and Bohol has no more direct connection after the Dipolog Princess of Sulpicio Lines was gone. Those three ports might have enough passengers and cargo to sustain the ship.

But this is all water under the bridge now. The St. Joan of Arc is already gone as old ships have no future in 2GO. And maybe it was just proper that the people that initiated this system are already retired now too. They deserve the same fate maybe. It was just like when in ATS the execs approved of the culling and culling of ships until there were more VPs than liners and they did not realize that they will also be culled because that situation cannot continue.

There is a new management in 2GO after new investors came in. I just hope they are forward-looking and love ships instead of being wielders of knives.

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M/V ST. JOAN OF ARC

M/V St. Joan of Arc ©Mark Ocul

With the great decline of the liner industry in the Philippines (from about 60 in 1998 to only about eight sailing at the start of 2015) almost nobody notices that the M/V St. Joan of Arc, the former SuperFerry 5, is now the eldest liner in the Philippines both in date of construction and in the number of years in service which is now 20.  Long for sale and laid up (or more precisely anchored offshore) many times, she claimed this record maybe because of good luck on her part and bad luck on the part of her fleet mates.  It was obvious then that 2GO was gearing to retain her sister St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2, as shown by her refurbishing and increased speed of 19 knots, which was even better that when she first came here in 1992, as compared to SuperFerry 5’s 17 knots. However, she went down after a collision with Sulpicio Express Siete in Mactan Channel in August of 2013. After that M/V St. Gregory the Great, the former SuperFerry 20, grounded in a reef near Guimaras and sustained damage that was considered beyond economic repair (BER). With no spare ships it looks like JOA, as she is known in abbreviation, might sail on for a while.

St. Joan of Arc is actually a liner (a multi-day ship) but she also belongs to that class of ship which landlubbers (including landlubber officials) call as “overaged” which at even with the most generous allowance means ferries over 40 years old. 40 years marks a special milestone in ships because in the decades past this should be the age when ships are already conking out and ready to die due to metal fatigue and unreliability. But many seriously underestimated the ships, the ability of her caretakers and the availability of surplus and CNC-milled parts. It might look funny to some but we now have a collection of about 100 ferries that are over 40 years old and that number does not include the cargo ships!

St. Joan of Arc was built by Onomishi Zosen in Onomichi, Japan for Meimon Car Ferry. She was completed in May 1973 and was christened the Ferry Hakozaki. She is one of three sister ships built in that shipyard and the other two were Ferry Sumiyoshi which became the St. Thomas Aquinas and Golden Okinawa which became the Cagayan Bay 1 of Gothong Shipping Corp. Her over-all length (LOA) was 138.6 meters and she had a breadth of 22.2 meters and a GT (Gross Tonnage) of 7,287. She was powered by two Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines developing 15,200 horsepower that gave her an original speed of 19-19.5 knots.

M/V Superferry 5 ©Douglas Adona

She was renamed as the Ferry Cosmo in 1992 and in 1994 she came to Aboitiz Shipping Corp. to become the SuperFerry 5. In the country her GT rose to 11,638 although her superstructure did not change much. Her NT (Net Tonnage) also rose to 6,466 and her passenger capacity was bumped to 2,332.  She started sailing at the start of 1995 and she was inaugurated before her fourth voyage with then Aboitiz endorser Sharon Cuneta in attendance. She then sailed the Manila-Iligan route for Aboitiz Shipping via Cebu. Her service speed then was 17.5-18  knots but it was known she can run faster than that. She can pass underneath the Mactan bridges as one of her features was a folding stern mast.

In 1996 she was overtaken by the merger of William Lines Inc., Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Aboitiz Shipping Corp. which created the William, Gothong and Aboitiz Corp. (WG&A). She retained her old name and initially even her Iligan route. One positive change, though, is the conversion from paid meals into free meals as before the merger there was no free food in Aboitiz Shipping Corp. (the operation was cafeteria-type). Initially right after the merger it was still paid meals but passenger protest was fierce and very vocal especially from William and Gothong regulars and so WG&A instituted the traditional free meal system.

M/V Superferry 5 cafeteria ©Wakanatsu

Cleanliness, order and snappy service were the hallmarks of the ship from the very start. Unlike other ferries then when it was an effort to call service personnel, in SuperFerry 5 there will be always someone on duty and on call in every accommodation and cabins have their own telephones should a service crew is needed. And every so often a cleaner will appear even if the accommodations were not dirty. Right after someone used the bathroom or the toilet a utility person will appear, check it up and even wipe the mirror and basin. Cleaning and mopping of the restaurant was also a constant chore especially since it is open 18 hours and it also serves as the main lounge. Maintenance crew will also immediately retouch any surface that showed rust. Everything was spic and span then. There were even premium features like a first-class paid restaurant and the famed “Gloria Maris” chain operated it. This was also the dining room of the first class passengers. There was also a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor but unfortunately both services did not last long for lack of patronage.

M/V Superferry 5 Dining Room ©Wakanatsu

Not long after, WG&A “rationalized” routes which meant culling of ships and maximizing sailing time with few in-port hours and she was paired with SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 9 to run routes that were not in a weekly or twice-weekly cycle. Afterwards, like in the rest of the WG&A fleet she was assigned different routes that were changing all too often for effective monitoring.

Less than a decade after the “Great Merger”, CAGLI and William Lines decided to opt out of the merger. WG&A subsequently was renamed as the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). SuperFerry 5, however retained her name but was not treated the same. Slowly, she lost favor as ATS preferred the ferries they converted into twin cargo decks like the SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9, SuperFerry 2 and later the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21. ATS lacked cargo ships then and they reasoned a twin cargo deck ship will work just as fine but not really because when a ROPAX route is dropped, the cargo service also disappears.

M/V Superferry 5 ©Mark Ocul

After several years, the merger of Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Transport System finally happened after fits and starts. SuperFerry 5 was then renamed the St. Joan of Arc but again she was not in favor and was put up for sale. Especially after the grounding in Coron, Palawan she was mainly unused as the Negros Navigation ships were favored over her like the repair of the then sickly already St. Joseph the Worker and sister St. Peter the Apostle and the continued use of the slow and smoky San Paolo.

With the sale of St. Rita de Casia, the former SuperFerry 1, she is now the only ferry in 2GO that do not have twin cargo decks. So in fact, although she is the smallest now in the fleet she ironically has the biggest passenger capacity. But since liner patronage has already weakened a lot that is no longer a factor as there is no way now her full passenger capacity can be utilized.

With the mantra of “finding the right size”, a euphemism for culling of the fleet I doubt if St. Joan of Arc still has a clear future with 2GO especially with her advanced age and in the light that the long sailing hours of liners is not kind to elderly engines. She might still shoulder on but the “Grim Reaper of Ships” could just be around the corner now especially since her owner company is not exactly fond of old ships and will cull ships even without replacement. So to those who can, my advice is better sail with her now while she is still around as her time remaining might not last long.

M/V St. Joan of Arc ©Tristan Fil Lirasan