Are We Heading Into The 3rd Surplus of Bottoms?

In maritime connotations, a “surplus of bottoms” means there is a general surplus of ships which can mean marginal loads to survive and worse a fare and freight war occurs. When this happens some shipping companies do not survive and so a “correction” (this term is used in Business and Economics) occurs but that can mean ships going to the breakers or being idled.

The first surplus of bottoms happened in the start of the 1980’s and that happened in the year 1980 and in the succeeding years. It became even more pronounced when the financial and political crisis hit the country in 1983 after the assassination of the opposition political leader Ninoy Aquino.

What triggered the surplus of bottoms in 1980 was the arrival of the new container ships which changed the system of carrying cargo. Before their arrival it was the passenger-cargo ships which carried the express cargo (the cargo that have to be moved fast). There were actually only a few cargo liners (cargo ships that have regular routes and schedules) before the arrival of the container ships. Passenger-cargo ships before 1980 have voluminous cargo holds (holds because there were not RORO liners before 1980 except for two, the third Don Carlos of Sulpicio Lines which arrived in 1977 and the Don Johnny of Lorenzo Shipping which arrived in 1976).

But when Sea Transport Company, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines and later Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Central Shipping Company (the vargo company of Sweet Lines) invested in container ships, suddenly the old passenger-cargo ships especially the former “FS” ships suddenly had no enough load and many were laid up and they rotted and were later sold to breakers especially during the financial and political crisis of the mid-1980s when the country’s growth rate turned negative.

Cargo is the bread and butter of shipping and it is not the passengers that make them viable. The major shipping lines were just too happy then to invest in container ships for they can move cargo without employing too many crews that go with the operation of passenger-cargo ships. With container ships there won’t be complaints about delays, insurance goes down, there is no need to stack up on food, etc. Operation became more simple with less risk. But that paradigm change meant a lot of old passenger-cargo ships will have to go because of a surplus of bottoms and that surplus became more pronounced when the mentioned crisis  hit.

There were more than a dozen shipping companies which did not survive this first surplus of bottoms especially in the crisis and among them were the old venerable Compania Maritima (which was the biggest shipping company for decades already), the various small shipping companies to Bicol and the Eastern Visayas which were also greatly affected by the development of intermodal shipping, the Northern Lines, Madrigal Shipping Company, Tomas del Rio & Company (the former Rio y Olabarrieta) and others.

The second surplus of bottoms period hit at the tail end of the administration of Fidel V. Ramos and it spilled into the terms of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This period covered the late 1990s and the early 2000s and this was more pronounced in the liner sector like the first surplus of bottoms period.

The cause of the second surplus of bottoms period was actually the incentives given by Fidel V. Ramos to shipping when the acquisition of surplus ships from Japan quickened fast and many new players emerged not only in the  liner sector but also in the tramper sector which is actually in competition with the cargo liner sector. This second surplus of bottoms was exacerbated by the emergence of the budget airlines and the intermodal trucks and buses which took passengers and cargo from the liner sector.

In the second surplus of bottoms period the negative effect was more widespread. It happened in the High Speed Craft (HSC) sector when the arrival of the SuperCats, Sea Angels, Weesam Expresses, Bullet Expresses and others were simply too fast for the actual passenger growth. And this was worsened too by the Asian Crisis of 1997 which dampened business. One result was that we needed to sell High Speed Crafts outside the country.

In some short-distance ferry routes like in Batangas and Zamboanga this surplus of bottoms resulted in dog-eat-dog completion where fare and rate wars erupted. It was good for the passengers, car owners and shippers initially but this also meant that the financially weaker (but not necessarily smaller) shipping companies won’t survive. Among the notable casualties in Zamboanga were the Sampaguita Shipping Lines and SKT Shipping which later reincarnated into the KST (Kong San Teo) Shipping (but which also went under).

In Batangas, the formerly dominant Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies also sank along with some other smaller shipping companies. In Cebu there was also a show of surplus bottoms but not as great as in Batangas and Zamboanga. Funnily, someone who has no knowledge of shipping, Myrna S. Austria made a Ph.D. thesis of this period and declared that so many routes lack competition. And the many routes and shipping companies disappeared because in truth there was so much competition (her data was incomplete and she didn’t know that parallel routes compete).

And like in first surplus of bottoms era a “correction” happened. What is sad here is we lost so many liners and liner routes. WG&A and Cebu Ferries Corporation shrank to just about a third of its former size and SuperCat to just less than half of its peak. The pioneer in fastcrafts Bullet Express (later Bullet Xpress) also disappeared along with some other High Speed Crafts operators.

After this the acquisition of ships went into doldrums that for a good ship spotter it became hard to maintain interest in shipping. But recently the ship spotters were jolted by new acquisitions especially since many are actually brand-new. The FastCat series started this trend and was followed by the Starlite series. Many other shipping companies are quickening their acquisitions including in High Speed Crafts and Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs). Competition drives many of these new acquisitions. But in the case of Island Water and Shogun Shipping theirs is trying the waters their own way.

These developments happened in the backdrop of the development of a new paradigm, the Cargo RORO LCTs which take rolling cargo away from the overnight ferries and the short-distance ferries. There are many shipping companies now in this sector and the LCTs involved here are nearing the two dozen mark. Like when the container ships first arrived, the operation of a Cargo RORO LCT is simpler than that of a ferry and they are wanted as suddenly they became the solution to the second-class treatment of trucks in ferries.

At the moment these new developments are beneficial to the passengers, car owners and truckers/shippers as there had been a lowering of rates in some routes and places. Plus there are more options and schedules now.

MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the regulatory body of the government with regards to the maritime sector will always push for the acquisition of new ships in their goal of ship modernization. And they will always think that more is better. And everybody is happy when a new ship arrives.

The question is will this lead to the 3rd surplus of bottoms? Well, it’s a little early to say but we know the shipping companies are still in the acquisition mood and we do not know up to when this optimism will end. The banks are open now for loans unlike before and the series of FastCats which can sail for as long as they want and the Starlites are not yet finished in arriving. Ferry companies have also discovered China sources now both in brand-new and surplus.

What is the antidote to a surplus of bottoms? That is the threat of MARINA to cull old ships, most of which are still running reliably and many of their companies have no record of losing a ship. Almost all are opposed to this and MARINA knows that. That is also not popular to the public as we are sentimental of our old ships.

We will have to see how this episode plays out.

 

The Biggest Shipping Modernization By Far

When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.

If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.

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The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.

I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.

But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.

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The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.

The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.

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The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.

The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the Starlite Pioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.

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The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.

The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.

The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.

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Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.

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A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.

Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.

In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.

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A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.

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A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.

As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.

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A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.

I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.