Is Sulu Sea the New Somalia?


The MV Royal 16 (Credits to “tropic maritime images and

There are some foreign writers and analysts that postulate that Sulu Sea is becoming the “new Somalia”. Maybe they are trying to be polite and so they refer to Sulu Sea when in actuality most parts of Sulu Sea are peaceful and so do most of the provinces that border that sea. Maybe they really want to point to Sulu but they might be trying not to offend some people. Or is it Sulu Sea because the kidnapping incident that first caught world attention happened in Puerto Princesa, the Dos Palmas incident where the Burnham couple and Abu Sayyaf became world-famous?

Somalia I think is a much different case. In there you had a country that descended into a complete civil war with many contending sides and no competent central government was left standing except in name. From Somalia the term “failed state” came and that came to denote a country where there is no central authority that has the mandate nor the force to enforce laws and to provide order. It also meant that there are no social services like education and health services that are normally found in states with working central governments.

At the most here, we can only have a situation where there can be two “failed islands” or “failed provinces”. But then Sulu and Basilan have working provincial governments, those still provide public and social services and regular elections are still being held. The military is still present in both provinces although it has difficulty containing and neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) threat. The military is still capable of launching offensives but with no decisive results because the Abu Sayyaf Group is embedded in the population.

The situation in Somalia or Afghanistan and Libya, two other “failed states” is different. There, the regular armies of the Western world fear to commit fully because they think that they will just be bogged down can’t get out in an unwinnable war and take unacceptable casualties through suicide attacks by the forces they are trying to control and defeat. Such situation is not true in Sulu and Basilan nor it will come true in the short foreseeable future.

What is only true in Sulu and Basilan is the Abu Sayyaf and related groups can kidnap and hold people for ransom including whites (and that is what catches world attention). But then kidnapping had been going on in the more lawless provinces of Mindanao since 40 years ago that it is almost like a cottage industry. Whites including priests have been victims of kidnapping for ransom in the past. What only changed is the ransom demand now is much higher and the kidnappers will behead the hostages if they think they need to prove a point or exert pressure.

Another recent change also is they can attack ships now and maybe that is the reason why the foreign commentators liken it to Somalia where taking of ships and its crews for ransom has been the hallmark of their fund-raising there. And like in Somalia the military here can’t seem to find and free the hostages without ransom being paid. They can launch operations but when the target is embedded in the population it is just like trying to find a tiny object in the dense woods.

In Somalia the attacks on ships have gone down to a record low in the past few years in a big part due to the rotating naval patrols of countries that has a great number of ships sailing the world’s waters (I am not talking here of flags of convenience countries like Panama and Liberia) and that includes even China. So it seems better patrols and surveillance can do the trick.

Can that be replicated here? Now I doubt it since the custom is the best ships of the Coast Guard and the Navy are always “floating monuments” in the biggest ports like Manila and Cebu (maybe they feel their commodores need an office and a showcase?). Even in search and rescue role, seldom will one will see their ships being based or patrolling the busy seaways where accidents can happen (because that will entail basic in some remote or lonely places like Romblon or the Camotes islands).

Attacks on foreign ships near Sulu have already happened in the recent months. Still the generated clamor by the anti-China media is to patrol the Scarborough Shoal and now the Benham Rise. ITLOS has already said the land features in Sulu Sea do not generate any territorial seas. And it should be obvious as daylight that the waters above Benham Rise is international waters. And so patrolling of international waters seem to be higher priority than patrolling our internal and archipelagic waters where there is an actual threat on life and property.

Do our leaders and opinion makers realize that the taking of foreign ships and its crews in our waters is a big slap on our face? If our forces cannot protect ships in our waters, will not our “patrolling of international waters” seem laughable to them?

Now some shipping companies already have advisories not to pass through the Balabac Strait to and from Singapore on the way to Cebu or Davao and instead pass through Mindoro Strait which means a longer route (no problem for them as they will just pass additional charges to us in the long run). And Puerto Princesa is now our cruise ship capital and cruise ships coming here was a new, good development in the past few years. Well, another “Dos Palmas” again or an attack on cruise ship tourists like in Tunisia and those cruise ships will be gone in an instant.

Whatever now, our shipping scene is already changed and not only on the foreign shipper side but also on the local side. Is there a local shipper not apprehensive to pass now through Basilan Strait on the way to Gensan and Davao? The last few times I checked the AIS, I noticed more ships are now using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. It seems the choppier waters of the part of the country is less of a problem than the pirates of southwestern Mindanao.


This was being towed when it tug was attacked

But a “new Somalia”? Nope. Not by any means. And any comparison such as that is simply insult to us.

The Liner That Sank A Liner Company (The Saga of the Princess of the Stars)

The Princess of the Stars of Sulpicio Lines Incorporated was the biggest-ever liner to grace the Philippine seas. She was not the longest, however, because such honor belonged to the Princess of the Orient, also of Sulpicio Lines but compared to that liner the Princess of the Stars was wider and taller and for confirmation, her Gross Tonnage (GT), the measure of the total volume of the ship, was higher. In the comparison, the M/S Philippines of Emilio Yap was excluded because that ship was not a sailing liner but a floating hotel when it came here.


Photo from homepagenifty2

The Princess of the Stars was the second Ferry Lilac of Shin Nihonkai Ferry Company which is known in Japan for building big liners that sail the open waters of Japan. Shin Nihonkai was among the companies that offered the “Bypasses of the Sea” service in the earlier decades in Japan which meant big, fast ROROs that took in vehicles along sea lanes instead of it battling the clogged highways of Japan then. From utilitarian ROROs, that concept evolved into the “cruiseferries” in the 1970’s which offered hotel-like accommodations aside from being able to carry vehicles. When patronage weakened in the 1980’s due to the rise of other modes of transports that evolved into the “carferries” which is again utilitarian but more comfortable than the first generation of long-distance RORO’s that appeared in the 1960’s.

The Ferry Lilac already belonged to the “carferries” class when built and much like the New Miyako which became the SuperFerry 12 in the Philippines for they were built in the same year but Ferry Lilac was much bigger than the New Miyako. When completed in July of 1984, Ferry Lilac was the largest RORO-passenger ship existing in Japan. She was assigned the Maizuru-Otaru route that passes through the Sea of Japan in the western seaboard of that country. As a “carferry”, although she still had suite rooms and other high class rooms, the emphasis was already on food and restaurants, live entertainment and shows and on game halls. Her capacity was 554 passengers but after remodeling that increased to 788 passengers. Her design and equipment were supposedly of the latest of the period being the “ultimate carferry” then.

The Ferry Lilac‘s design philosophy followed what was the naval design thinking then. Japan researchers determined that the swells of the open seas of Japan has an average of 140 to 145 meters between crests and so they suggested that the length of the liners be greater than that. The belief was that the ship would be able to ride between two crests and such will not pitch too much. However, it seems that was a naive assumption because after the ship’s bow rose with the coming swell the bow will then sink after the swell passed the center of the ship. In Youtube, there are videos of ship bow that appears to be submarining into the sea (of course, it will rise again). This phenomenon also happens to all kinds of ships including container ships, bulkers, military ships and other kind of ships in the heavy swells of the open seas.


Photo by Joel Bado

The second Ferry Lilac was tall and she had high sides and the superstructure encompasses the whole ship. The philosophy behind the high sides is it serves as a protection against big waves including rogue waves and in case the ship listed she will not take in water easily hence forestalling capsizing. That was proven in later cases like the Ariake (which was hit by a rogue wave) and the Cougar Ace which did not immediately sink even though their sides were already lying in the water. I do not know if the design philosophies mentioned in this paragraph and the previous one weighed on the decision to risk her in a typhoon later. I heard her company was very confident in her ability to survive heavy seas as supposedly these big “carferries” were designed to survive seas generated by tropical cyclones of 120-130kph center wind strength.

The second Ferry Lilac was built by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI) in Aioi shipyard in Japan in 1984 and had the permanent ID IMO 8323161. Her dimensions were 192.9 meters by 29.4 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 18,268 tons. This later rose to 23,824 in gross tonnage (GT) with a net tonnage (NT) of 16,040. Its DWT (deadweight tonnage) was 7,670. The ferry was big but was not really built for speed unlike the big ferries of Japan in the previous decade as her design speed was only 21.5 knots. The power comes from SEMT-Pielstick engines that develops only 26,400 horsepower.

The ferry was released from Japan in 2004 after twenty years of service and went to Sulpicio Lines Inc. There was minimal refitting and there was no change in the superstructure and most works were done just in Cebu port. The refitting were mainly on how the facilities of the ship will conform to local conditions like the provision of an Economy Class and its corresponding Economy restaurant. Otherwise, the facilities and comforts of the ship were already more than enough as with the space for passengers. In the period of her arrival, passenger load of the liners was already declining and so there was no longer any pull to greatly increase the passenger capacity which was just limited to 1,992, a far cry from the 3,912 of the Princess of the Orient which was similar to her in size.


Photo from Wakanatsu

When Princess of the Stars was fielded she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines vice the Princess of the Universe. As flagship, she did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week. Sailing, she usually catches the attention of observers for her sheer size. Docked in Manila or Cebu, she simply dwarfed the other ferries and with her height she simply towered above the other ferries. But unlike what others may expect, she was not led by the most senior captain of Sulpicio Lines. Others declined because they know handling a ship that big is more demanding. Looked from an angle, ships of these size were not really designed for Philippine waters. That size might have been demanded when passenger demand was still strong but not in the new millennium and Princess of the Stars might just be part a showcase. More kindly, she can also be looked as the replacement of the big and luxurious Princess of New Unity which was sold to breakers that same year.

The Princess of the Stars did not sail long, however. Sailing on the night of June 20, 2008 for Cebu, she failed to stop and seek shelter unlike two ships of Aboitiz Transport System which dropped anchor and sought shelter in Puerto Galera because of a coming typhoon. The Princess of the Stars simply sailed on when the evening news already warned of Typhoon “Frank” that will pass the northern coast of Leyte on a collision course with the Princess of the Stars (she left Manila at 8pm and the evening news was 6:30pm). The expected strength then of the typhoon was some 120-130kph which was theoretically within the capacity of the ship to handle. Was the voyage a test case of her strength in Philippine typhoons?

I always wondered about the bravado of the Princess of the Stars. Normally before when there was a storm in Eastern Visayas and the ship wanted to still sail to Cebu or northern Mindanao they take the southern route which means from Verde Island Passage the ship turns to Tablas Strait instead of pursuing the route passing through the Sibuyan Sea. The ship will then sail through the seas off the western side of Panay island and then turn to Panay Gulf and round Negros island on its southern part and then head northward to Cebu port. The wind and swells will be strong in Sulu Sea but the ship will be farther from the eye of the typhoon and after rounding the southwest tip of Panay island the wind and swells will already be at the stern of the ship and the rocking will be less. I have been aboard such detours in the past and I know this custom.


Photo by Rodney Orca

Tucked in and sheltered by an island, the wind and swells will be moderated and not that much felt in a ship. It is after venturing in the open when the roughness of the sea begins. In the past, our ships has learned to use the cover of the islands if they are not seeking shelter. Even small islands like the Romblon islands provide a measure of cover.

By next morning, Typhoon “Frank” was stronger (it was already developing more strength that night) and its strength was already 165kph, a strength that is not to be messed with. Well, ships going from Australia and the Philippines that pass through our eastern seaboard don’t drop anchor and seek shelter. But they know how to distance themselves from the typhoon. This can be verified through AIS. Where a typhoon is passing the area is clear of ships. Some stop, some take a detour and some seek shelter and drop anchor. Princess of the Stars was in the vicinity of a typhoon and in fact was in a collision course but did neither of the three evasive actions mentioned previously. She simply sailed on until she was already in the eye of the typhoon. Actually, that was a feat of seamanship – to sail into the eye of a strong typhoon. Few can do that (restated, only fools do that).


Taken from

But the ship did not survive and capsized off the southeast coast of Sibuyan island in an inverted position and stuck in a reef which saved the ship from sinking completely. However, that was no use to most of the passengers and crew of the ship as only 54 survived while 814 were dead or missing and some were washed far away.

Like the Dona Paz tragedy, the Princess of the Stars sinking caused national and international outcry and shamed Sulpicio Lines to heights greater than the Dona Paz tragedy where there was still dispute then who was really at fault in the collision that torched and sank Dona Paz. In the Princess of the Stars case there was no one to blame except for Sulpicio Lines. The company tried to blame the government forecasting agency PAGASA but that did not gain traction. One thing was sure in the accident, the ship was not using state-of-the-art forecasting services like INMARSAT which was the first one to declare that the missing Malaysian Airlines jet MH370 veered south and was lost in the Indian Ocean (when that was not their function or service).


Credits: NAMRIA and PDI

The backlash of this tragedy was so great it also sank the passenger service of Sulpicio Lines. Now they are forever barred from engaging in passenger liner shipping. And until now they are still haunted by suits. They were even forced to rename their company into the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC).

With the sinking, the Philippine government also tightened regulations on sailings during storms. Now, no Philippine ship can sail when the winds reach 60kph or even less at times. Above that only foreign ships are still sailing our waters.

And that is the ironic thing I find now. Imagine only foreign ships can sail our waters when the wind blows. All because of the Princess of the Stars.


Photo by Britz Salih

Note: I don’t know who wrote the Wikipedia article of Princess of the Stars. It has errors in the specifications of the ship.