The 130-meter Liner

From the start, I always had respect for the 130-meter liner class and maybe my close observation of the SuperFerry 5 which I sailed with many times influenced me. Of course, I have respect for ships of all classes and that is why I don’t gush for a particular class or even type. I always had the tendency to gauge the suitability and to what route the ship is being used. For me, being the biggest or the fastest is not the ultimate consideration. Those things are maybe just for the young anyway.

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SuperFerry 5 by Ramiro Aranda Jr.

A handful of liners that came to our seas exceeded 150 meters in length and some were even over 185 meters in length, the biggest that plied the Philippine seas. Those liners all had gross tonnages of over 10,000 except for the sister ships St. Joseph The Worker and St. Peter The Apostle of Negros Navigation whose gross tonnages were grossly under-declared. The liners over 10,000 gross tons are what were called “great liners” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose in their book, “The Great Liners of the World” and our liners officially over 10,000 tons were listed in that book.

Liners over 150 meters have engines whose horsepower total over 20,000 and for that it is capable of thrusting the ship to 20 knots or over but not much more. It’s design speed might have been slightly over 20 knots in Japan but here they generally just run at 20 knots (well, even a little less now). Very few ships sailed here at 21 knots and over and probably only two did regularly which were the Filipina Princess and the Princess of Paradise, both liners of of the famed and infamous Sulpicio Lines.

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A 157-meter liner (SuperFerry 19 by Aris Refugio)

I can understand 150-meter liners with 20-knot speed if:

  1. it is used in the strongest routes,

  2. it was still the height of passenger demand and that was the situation before the budget airlines and intermodal buses came in force.

The 150-meter liners of old (not the current liners of 2GO) normally had passenger capacities averaging 2,500 persons (with the liners 165 meters and over averaging nearly 3,000 passengers if the putative liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines are excluded).

However, on a contrary note in passenger capacity, SuperFerry 5 and its sister ship SuperFerry 2 of Aboitiz Shipping had passenger capacities of nearly 2,400 persons average and even the comparable Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines had a passenger capacity of nearly 2,300. Yes, in maximization especially with four passenger decks the 130-meter liner can nearly match the 150-meter liners. However, they will not run at 20 knots but 17.5 to 18.5 knots is respectable and comparable to the fast cruiser liners that preceded them. In a Manila to Iloilo or a Manila to Cebu leg the difference in travel time is just two hours or less and it is only one hour if the liner can pass under the two Mactan bridges. And one or two hours is not much detectable by passengers especially if the liner departs late anyway.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

In combined Manila to Visayas and Manila to Northern Mindanao routes with an intermediate port, both the 150-meter, 20-knot ship and the 130-meter, 18-knot liner can do two complete voyages in a week so there is no difference in their utilization. What the faster liner only adds is only in the number of port hours not sailing or the inter-port hours.. Well, the crew appreciate more port hours if they have a family or a girlfriend there. But then they might not be able to go down the ship earlier because the area they have to clean first is bigger.

But in fuel consumption the bigger and faster liner will consume significantly more fuel. Normally the 130-meter ship is equipped with engines of just 15,000 horsepower or a little more. Now, compare the thriftiness of those engines in fuel consumption compared to a liner with 20,000 or more horsepower.

Of course, in cargo the bigger liner will carry more while the 130-meter liner will just carry some 100 TEUs in container vans. But then I observed that even then the ship’s cargo will only be full one way or even not (not much load back to Manila because the provinces do not produce much and grains, copra and sugar are no longer carried by the liners of today unlike before). And the rise of intermodal shipping using the combinations of trucks and basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs chopped up the liner cargo even more. Now the liners of 2GO normally sails with less than a full cargo load and it even has to delay departures for a few hours so more cargo can be loaded.

In passengers the ships even two decades ago when demand was still at its peak only gets full at peak season anyway. In normal months the ship will then be carrying about 2/3 of its capacity. Now they are lucky to have half of their capacity full.

Was the 150 meter liner a mistake? Well, if it was the matter of bragging rights then it might not be. No one wanted to be left behind in size and in speed. And besides Sulpicio Lines and William Lines had their own one-on-one-battle. But the era of 150 meter liners was just short with a window of only about a decade (while ship’s lives here is generally more than double of that). And when it was used on more minor routes I thought it was already a mistake because there is not enough cargo and passengers to sustain them there. And so as it grew older the 150-meter liners slowly became dinosaurs especially when liner passenger demand weakened. Of course now that was masked by withdrawals from routes (and lessening of frequencies) which means these liners are already too big for the average port of call.

That was what happened decades ago when the small ex-”FS” ships  and lengthened ex-“F” ships were no longer around. Many ports and towns lost their connection to Manila because the bigger liners that succeeded them were already too big for those ports plus the depths of the ship and the ports no longer matched.

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St. Therese of Child Jesus by Jonathan Gultiano

And that is why I wondered about the last liner purchases in the country. The ports got bigger than decades ago but there are less passengers now and so Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO just cut off the routes (and it was obvious they were not intent on going back to the more minor routes) because there is not enough cargo and passengers anymore for their 150-meter liners. That is why they left ports and cities like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan. Cotabato and many others. Well, on another note, they learned that they just needed 90- to 100-meter liners in their Palawan, Romblon and Capiz routes so they just dissolved Cebu Ferries and took its overnight ships and converted them.

I think the 130-meter liner was best for us in most of the main routes. Like what SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and Princess of the Pacific have shown (and by Mabuhay 2 and Mabuhay 5, too, of William Lines, the latter SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 9, respectively) they can be modified to up four decks that will have a total of about 2,300 passengers average when demand was still strong. And when it weakened another cargo deck can be created. Or if it came when passenger demand was already falling the number of decks can be limited into three with the passenger capacity no longer in the 2,000 range. Well, later liners fielded in the 2000’s had the sense not to really pack it in.

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Two passenger decks converted into cargo deck (Photo by Mike Baylon)

Now, if only bragging rights did not come into the picture maybe the liner choices might have been more sane.

Adjusted for the weakening of liner shipping in this millennium, I think the biggest liners should just be in the 130 to 140-meter range with just 15,000 to 16000 horsepower and a cruising speed of 18 knots (well, the 150-meter, 22,000-horsepower liners of 2GO just average 19 knots now anyway). There is no more need for passenger capacities reaching 2,000 persons. If there is a mezzanine for cars it should just be retained instead of being converted into passenger accommodations as new cars or passenger vans destined for dealers south are important sources of revenue now for the liners. On more minor routes maybe we should even go back to the 100- to 110-meter liners of the past as augmentation for the 130- to 140-meter liners.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz with 1,426 pax capacity by Rodney Orca

Now that would be more sane.

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The Misfortune of the Surigao Liner Route

Of all the many ports of Northern Mindanao, the geographical area and not the political-administrative region, it is Surigao that I did not see losing its liner connection to Manila given its history and not its demographic and economic profile. In the old days, Surigao had six passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling and dropping anchor every week whereas the likes of more known and bigger Iligan and Zamboanga did not have that frequency. So for me the loss of Manila connection by Surigao is almost unbelievable when the likes of Nasipit, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Ozamis still have their liner connection to Manila.

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Surigao Port by Aris Refugio

After the war, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Escano Lines, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), General Shipping Company (GSC), the great Compania Maritima (CM) provided Surigao with connection to Manila. Before the war, Surigao had ferry connection even in early American times and so the loss of connection was as shocking to me as the loss of Davao of its liner connection to Manila. I mean, the connections are historical and it was an epoch in local shipping.

In 1954, when the country has basically recovered from the war and there were enough ships already, the Romblon and Basilan of Compania Maritima and the Davao and Vizcaya of Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) sailed to Surigao. These were augmented by the Fernando Escano of Escano Lines and the General Mojica of General Shipping Company. All of these passenger-cargo ships were former war-surplus “FS” ships used by the US Army in their Pacific campaign during the war. Ex-“FS” ships were the backbone of our passenger shipping fleet in the early Republic years.

In 1955 the Occidental of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company and the Don Manuel of Royal Lines appeared in Surigao. Surigao then was usually paired with Butuan port (the true Butuan and not Nasipit) in voyages to increase the passenger and cargo volume. Combining the two ports was not difficult since the distance of the two is not far and just in the same direction and the additional passengers and cargo is much more than the additional fuel that is consumed.

The routes combined with Surigao got more complex over the years. In some routes Surigao is combined with Masbate, the Samar ports and Tacloban. There was even a ship, the Vizcaya of PSNC that had the route Manila-Romblon-Cebu-Maasin-Cabalian-Surigao-Bislig-Mati-Davao (now how’s that for complexity?). If ever there is again a liner with such route again it will be offer good, free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes one week as long as the accommodations, passenger service and food are good. By the way that was the time when a dozen passenger ships depart North Harbor every day on the way south. Who said smaller ships of the past were not good? With smaller ships comes more voyages and more voyages means more choices. Smaller ships also mean shorter legs and so it has to call on more ports. More ports means more free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes long. If one wants shorter travel time there is always the airline.

Some other routes to Surigao pass thru Cebu and/or ports on the western and southern side of Leyte island like Ormoc and Maasin. When I see the Palawan Princess or the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I tend to think they were the remnants of this route when they call in Masbate, Calubian, Baybay, Maasin and Surigao from Manila (and it even extended to Butuan earlier). It was just too bad that the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 put an end to that long route.

Until 1959 there were six ships from Manila sailing to Surigao and these were the FS-167, Fernando Escano, General Segundo, General Roxas, Rizal and Romblon. All were ex-FS ships except for the Rizal which might have been a lengthened “F” ship. In 1964, Escano Lines increased its ship call to Surigao with the Tacloban and Kolambugan. Later when Sweet Lines became a national liner company they also called in Surigao with their Sweet Peace. Then in 1970 when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded a dedicated ship to their origin, the West Leyte, this ship held a Manila-Romblon-Palompon-Ormoc-Baybay-Cabalian-Surigao-Sogod route. What a way to blanket western Leyte and Surigao! Later this route was taken over by their more modern ship Cagayan de Oro.

In the same year, Go Thong had their Dona Gloria and Gothong  (their flagship) do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Mati-Davao-Iloilo-Manila route which goes round Mindanao island. The two alternating ships of Go Thong were no longer ex-“FS” ships but were refitted former cargo-passenger ships with refrigeration from Europe which had air-conditioning already. When I think of the ship routes of the past, I see they were much more exciting that the dry, short routes of today where free tourism (touring the city while the ship is docked) is almost minimal.

When Sweet Lines instituted their eastern Mindanao shortcutter route to Davao via Surigao their ships like the alternating Sweet Bliss and Sweet Dream were also former refrigerated cargo ships from Europe. Later, it was the Sweet Love and Sweet Lord which were alternating in this route. These ships were almost like in size as the Type “C1-M-AV1” war-surplus big ships used right after World War II but the difference is they were faster and had refrigeration which afforded air-conditioned first class accommodations and lounges to be built and hence were more comfortable than the big war-surplus ships that were converted to passenger-cargo use.

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Verano Port of Surigao City by Mike Baylon

With ships getting bigger, it is not surprising that routes and frequencies went down. If some thought that getting bigger is all a plus (like maybe in safety) then there is also a downside to that (and there might be a lesson there too). The ships getting bigger were probably the first that affected the frequency to Surigao. The factor came next maybe after that was the appearance of the fast cruiser liners in the second half of the 1970’s. Fast cruiser liners usually have just one intermediate call so that it can maintain a weekly voyage to a route as far as Southern Mindanao like Davao. With their appearance, other companies tried to speed up their voyages by also cutting down on intermediate calls and I think Surigao got affected by that like when Sweet Lines dropped Surigao on their eastern Mindanao seaboard shortcutter route.

In 1979, when container services was just starting, the frequency to Surigao was down to 3 ships a week with two of that provided by Escano Lines with their Kolambugan and Surigao. The Don Manuel of Sulpicio Lines was the other ship to Surigao. The three were old ships, as in ex-”FS” type and the other probably a lengthened ex-“F” ship. I am not that sure of the reason for the drop except that I know ships on the way to Davao by the eastern seaboard no longer calls in Surigao port. I was thinking of the cargo. Were there a lot of logs, lumber and plywood loaded before? During that time the logging and timber industry was already on the way down. And the Catbalogan and Tacloban ships no longer go to Surigao. Not enough load maybe to extend the route there. Anyway, this time even the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes are already being threatened by the emerging intermodal system when the buses and trucks started rolling up to Leyte from Luzon.

The end due to old age of the ex-”FS “ships definitely affected Surigao. Those type served the smaller ports and weaker routes in the 1970s. With just 1,000-horsepower engines they were certainly thrifty to run and their size fits the weaker and smaller ports especially with their shallow drafts. However, they can’t last forever and entering the 1980’s it was obvious they were already in their last legs as they were already in their fourth decade. By the middle of that decade only a few of those type were still running reliably and they were kept running by just cannibalizing parts from other similar ships, one of the reasons why their number kept steadily falling.

Sulpicio Lines fielded the small but comfortable liner Surigao Princess in the route in 1983 which I said seemed to be a relic of earlier days. The Surigao Princess had air-conditioning and First Class accommodations including Suite. Aboitiz Shipping also resuscitated their complex route with their cruiser liner Legaspi which also had air-conditioning. This ship was acquired from Escano Lines, as the former Katipunan and different from their old Legazpi and sometimes she sports the name Legaspi 1 to differentiate it as the old Legazpi was still sailing. Maybe the ex-”FS” ships were now too old and slow to maintain such route. I am talking here of the late 1980’s. Escano Lines, the old faithful in the route and a “home team” of the area was already fading and what they had left were cargo ships and the Virgen de la Paz maintained their Surigao route for them. However, before Escano Lines was completely gone, Madrigal Shipping entered the Surigao route with their Madrigal Surigao, a comfortable and modern cruiser liner in an era when RORO liners were already beginning to dominate but then Madrigal Shipping lasted only a few years before quitting and selling their ships.

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Port of Surigao (from a framed PPA photo)

I do not know if the regional ships also contributed to the decline of the Surigao liner route. They got better so much so that connecting to Cebu where great RORO liners were beginning to mushroom is already easy. One only has to check their schedules in Cebu and it is really nice to ride them and with their size they won’t be coming to Surigao and so connecting to Cebu might have become attractive so one can ride those great RORO liners. I am talking from experience but from a different city which is Iligan when it became an option to me to connect to Cebu to be able to ride a great liner. I also did that on the way home because I know that if I arrive before dark in Cebu there will be seamless connecting rides to Iligan and/or Cagayan de Oro.

There was a big change in 1993 when the great Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines upon being shunted to Davao called in Surigao. Aboitiz Shipping also for a time tried the Surigao route with their SuperFerry 2. In 1994, William Lines entered Surigao for the very first time with their luxury liner Mabuhay 2. So for the first time the competitors in Surigao were all new and good liners, a development I have not ever seen before. Maybe the deregulation and support extended by the Ramos government was the reason when there was optimism and dynamism in shipping again. But let it be noted that the Surigao Princess which is beginning to be unreliable and the Palawan Princess were still alternating in their complex route to Surigao and so there were 4 voyages a week to Surigao then from Manila.

In 1996, the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A, the former Our Lady of Akita tried to challenge the Filipina Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route. SuperFerry 2 also did a Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Tagbilaran route after the merger. When WG&A started pairing ships in a route one pair that did the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Surigao-Manila route was the SuperFerry 3 and Our Lady of Medjugorje pair. When SuperFerry 6 was withdrawn from the eastern seaboard route and WG&A stopped that route and SF6 was paired with SuperFerry 10, the SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8 was paired to do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Nasipit route and that was really a fast combination as both ships can do 20 knots. Later, when three-ship pairing was used by WG&A, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 sailed the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit, v.v. route.

I always thought WG&A will maintain a twice a week schedule to Surigao and pair it with Nasipit and Sulpicio Lines will always have two schedules a week with its unchanging routes and schedules. But of course with the sales of ships that transformed WG&A into Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) there will be uncertainties and the greatest change was when ats sold four of their newest liners to take advantage of good prices and earn a handsome profit. Coming at the heels of sales of older liners and container ships to pay off their former partners which withdrew from the merger, ATS suddenly lacked ships and the Surigao schedules became infirm.

But the greatest blow was when Sulpicio Lines was suspended after the capsizing of their Princess of the Stars in 2008. Suddenly, their two schedules to Surigao were cut and those never came back. I thought ATS would be reliable but actually except for the return of SuperFerry 19 from Papua New Guinea, ATS found themselves lacking ships especially since their SuperFerry 14 was lost to firebombing off Bataan in 2004. When they acquired their SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, I thought that somehow their routes might stabilize. But like their withdrawal from Davao and General Santos City, I did not see that they will be doing just a Manila-Tagbilaran-Nasipit route and leave Surigao. This was the period when they had the system to use the buses i.e. give the passengers bus tickets to connect to their ships like what they did in southern Mindanao (so passengers can ride their liners in Cagayan de Oro). For Surigao, howeverm it seems they were offering their other makeshift system, the use of connecting ships to Cebu by using their Cebu Ferries. Neat but for whom?

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SuperFerry 19 arriving in Surigao Port by Michael Denne

But then their subsidiary Cebu Ferries suddenly left to become the “Batangas Ferries”. What I saw was the ATS world collapsing and not out of financial trouble. They were just no longer that interested in shipping and they admitted as much. The passion was gone and they were already more interested in power generation. Well, their bet and support of Gloria Arroyo paid off handsomely and they were able to earn in Tiwi Geothermal and Mak-Ban in Laguna what they cannot possibly ever earn in shipping.

They sold their shipping to an entity that was less capable than them and which had to get a big loan for the acquisition and was a big burden, so heavy that initially the new company was on the red for the next three years until fuel prices eased and they were back in the black. But that was not any benefit to Surigao as they never came back there for long except for a short period like when St. Joseph The Worker was refurbished and was assigned there and which I was lucky to ride. But after her sale and her sister it was downhill all the way for Surigao. With bean counters ruling, smaller ports had no chance in 2GO, the entity after ATS. And to think there were no longer any other liner company competing. 2GO was just content on routes that will easily make them money. Did they call that “serving the public”? I am not sure.

Now Surigao no longer has a liner, not even one that is paired with Nasipit. But 2GO still call in Nasipit from Cebu and so the extra distance pays. But maybe not when paired with Surigao? Maybe if the hours and the fuel of the ship are measured the metric of Surigao is too low and the 2GO ship is better used elsewhere. That is the quintessential bean counter method. They are not into traditional shipping. They are into business.

I was also wondering about the off and on service of the company to Dapitan until its total withdrawal. Dapitan and nearby Dipolog a combined population of over 200,000. But its commercial level is low and so maybe a population of 200,000 is not enough to sustain a liner per 2GO standard. And so maybe Surigao City with just 150,000 people has no chance even if some incrementals from Siargao tourism is added. In Ormoc with over a population over 150,000, 2GO was not able to maintain a route. Somehow these metrics points to the standards and parameters of 2GO.

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Surigao Port by Lota Hilton

If that is correct then maybe Surigao has no chance really unless a new liner company with true shipping emerges. But then with the situation of the liner industry that is like asking for the moon. I don’t know if the change at the helm of 2GO with the entry of Chelsea Shipping and the SM Group if the metrics and priorities will change. If ATS and 2GO said they were “passionate” in shipping (of course their dictionary is not Webster), I don’t know what will be the adjective of the 2GO/NN-Chelsea-SM combine that will make it better.

I don’t want to be too hopeful and so I will just await developments.

Note: Thanks a lot to the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library.

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?

When Polloc Port Lost

Polloc-Port

Photo from REZA-ARMM

Many times a reader will read “Cotabato Port” when it comes to shipping and many of them will think of the great but now conflict-ridden city of Cotabato. They will not realize that the “Cotabato Port” referred to is actually the Polloc port in Parang town in Maguindanao province which is about kilometers from the city. The true Cotabato Port is actually a river port near the mouth of Cotabato River hence it is shallow and can just accommodate small and shallow-draft vessels.

So when ships became bigger, the government decided to develop a new port for Cotabato City but this was not located in the city but in the nearby town of Parang. Actually the port was between Cotabato City and Parang and its name is Polloc port and the national government promoted and supported it well.

1980 0921 Port of Polloc

Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the past, Polloc was a viable port when the roads in the region were still terrible. Sulpicio Lines and Aboitiz Shipping made good sailing there and they even had dedicated passenger-cargo ships and container ships to Polloc port. Sulpicio Lines used the Dona Marilyn (the former Dona Ana) which was a good fast cruiser liner then. They then fielded the RORO liner Cotabato Princess when it arrived and she served the route here well.

Aboitiz Shipping tried this route with a newly-fielded ship here, the SuperFerry 3, smaller that her fleetmates but more fit for this route. When the merged shipping company WG&A was formed a slew of ships served the route including the former William Lines flagship Dona Virginia and a host of ROPAXes including the very well-regarded SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8. The respected sisters SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 also served Parang port along with the Maynilad. Doesn’t that line-up tells one that Parang port and the Cotabato route was once good then?

1980 1022 Polloc Port

Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Of course Parang will not be as strong a port like Dadiangas or what is later known as Gensan. South Cotabato was able to develop agribusiness (think Dole) and a hog industry and that was what supported the port. Cotabato and Parang had no such equivalent especially since the area became conflict-ridden at the approach of the 1970’s and in the aftermath the area sank into a certain degree of lawlessness which is a deterrent for trade, investment and tourism.

When the conflict and lawlessness abated a little, Cotabato and Parang did not rise even though the government tried to pour in money and promoted Parang port especially when the SPDA (Southern Philippines Development Authority) was created. And the support continued under the banner of the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) and it tried to attract Malaysian businessmen and other businesses and promoted Polloc as a free port and ecozone.

Ironically, what doomed Polloc was actually the opening of two new highways, the Narciso Ramos Highway which connected to Malabang, Pagadian and a route to Marawi and Iligan or Ozamis and the paving of the old Sayre Highway which connected the area to Cagayan de Oro via Bukidnon. Where before a shipper will have to wait for the weekly ship, now he can truck his goods to Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis and the combination of the three means the availability of daily ships plus a shorter sailing time with a lower shipping cost. And for passengers there are many direct commuter vans now from Cotabato to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. They can just take the ship there and travel time and costs will be less. Conversely, when they arrive in those ports there will commuter vans waiting for them.

http://www.philstar.com/nation/2015/06/12/1465121/officials-see-rise-polloc-port-bangsamoro-shipping-hub

Now there is no more liner to Parang and cargo ships and container ships are few although the regional government tries to promote it mightily. However, it does not rise because there are simply better alternatives in shipping out cargo or bringing it in. Long-distance cargo trucks from even Cebu already penetrate the area and the main point of departure is Cagayan de Oro. Davao or General Santos City can also be the entry point especially if the goods are from abroad and there is no problem in trucking in the goods to the Cotabato area (talking of the city and not the old province).

The experience is actually what some say that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is okay and good to open the Narciso Ramos Highway and the Sayre Highway to connect Central Mindanao to Western and Northern Mindanao but then the unintended consequence is the sinking of Cotabato and Parang port.

I just hope the oil facility invested in by the Malaysians in Parang will somewhat make up for the fall. Hopefully they will allow goods from Singapore to be brought in tariff free under the ASEAN Free Trade Zone (which in Philippine bureaucratic definition means a lot of restrictions since they never care to read the dictionary and there are vested interests hiding behind those restrictions and bureaucrats and politicians protecting them). But then the local Nestle operation will balk because Nestle products from Singapore actually lands cheaper in Zamboanga (and that is even with grease money).

Wither Parang? No, actually I don’t have a good idea. It will be another locality whose fate is dependent on decision makers in Manila even though they don’t know much of local or regional realities.

Federalism, anyone?

Container Ships Also Sink Our Liners

In the past, before 1980, there was no conflict between the our liners and the container ships. First, container ships did not exist before the late 1970’s. Second, before that time, general cargo ships were not many as it is our liners that were mainly carrying the inter-island cargo that should be transported fast and were not in bulk. That was the reason why even though our production and the number of people were not yet as high like today, there were so many liners existing with as high as 90 liners at its very peak.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the early 1970’s, the Sea Transport Company came into existence. What was notable for this new company is they offered regular express cargo service to Mindanao which means a direct service and aside from loose cargo, their ships were able to carry small container vans which were non-standard as in they were offering 8-foot containers which they themselves designed (it was rectangular in shape). In due time, they also shifted to standard container vans and they fielded pure container carriers.

In 1976, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation converted one of their general cargo ships, the P. Aboitiz into a container carrier. Conversion like this was not difficult because only some internal structures need to be modified so a container van can be slot in and that also means modifying the holds and the hatches. The grabs of the booms also have to be modified by a bit so it can handle a container van.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1978, containerization was already in full swing when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation added more container ships and William Lines Incorporated followed suit. The next year, in 1979, Sulpicio Lines Incorporated also joined the bandwagon to be followed in the next year by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation which had already split from its merger with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc (CAGLI). Negros Navigation Company also joined this new paradigm in 1980. In 1981, Sweet Lines Incorporated also followed suit but they used their old company name Central Shipping Corporation. Among the major liner companies then, it was only Compania Maritima which did not join this new paradigm.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

These new container services offered direct sailings as in there were no intermediate ports. With direct service, the container ships might be a little slower than the liners (except for the fast cruisers) but their transit times were not worse than the liners (except to Cebu) because they don’t lose time in an intermediate port or ports. With the speed, convenience, security (no pilferage), lack of damage and contamination, soon the shippers were already shifting en masse to the new container services.

In the liner crisis of 1980 when many liners were deactivated and laid up, it seems the main cause of that was the emergence and immediate success of the container ships and container shipping. Maybe the liners suddenly found they don’t have enough cargo and hence they can’t maintain the old sailing schedule and from the outside it looked like that suddenly there was a “surplus” of bottoms (actually the liners complained of that).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In December 1979, the first RORO liner, the Dona Virginia of William Lines came. This RORO and those that came after her were capable of carrying container vans especially the XEU or 10-foot container vans that can be loaded aboard by the big forklifts. Soon even the fast cruiser liners were also carrying container vans atop their cargo holds especially at the bow of the ship. Some can also carry container vans on a platform in the stern.

Locally, I did not see a new paradigm take hold as fast as container shipping. The ROROs even took longer to be the new paradigm. In containerization, there was even a rush to convert general cargo ships into container ships. All the “new” container ship of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation were converts at the start. The other container shipping companies bought general cargo ships from Japan and converted them into container carriers. Our first container ships looked like general cargo ship unlike the modern container ship which does not look like general cargo ships (and nor can they handle loose cargo).

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In just a little over a year William Lines had 5 container ships (Gorio Belen research in the National Library)

The emergence of the RORO liners even pushed containerization faster as that new kind of ferry is ready-made not only for vehicles or rolling cargo but also for container vans, wheeled in atop chassis (which means atop trailers) or not (if not wheeled then big forklifts “wheeled” them in). There were not yet reach stackers in the early years of our containerization to handle the container vans.

In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the liners can still hold off the container ships. The reason was there were no budget airlines yet (Philippine Airlines fares then were really stiff) and there were no intermodal buses yet in the bulk of the islands (it was only strong in Eastern Visayas, their pioneer area). And liners can still pack in the passengers (even up to “overloading” or overbooking point) because people has already learned how to travel and there was a great push for migration to Metro Manila (which later led to the overcrowding of this metropolis).

However, when budget airlines and the intermodal buses came in droves, the passengers of the liners dropped. The 2,000 to 3,000 passenger capacity slowly became “too big” and hence the national shipping companies no longer fielded liners with capacities such as this in the new millennium. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also tried to reduce passenger capacity and increase cargo capacity by converting some of their liners to have two decks for rolling cargo like what they did in SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 2.

Superferry 12

Photo by Edison Sy

Can the liners compete with container ships when the passenger demand dipped? The answer is a plain “No way”. Liners usually have more than three times the horsepower of a local container ship (and it is single-engined which means less spare parts are needed) and yet the local container ship usually have three times the container capacity of a RORO liner. This even became more pronounced when the regime of high oil prices came in the first decade of this millennium. Per fuel prices alone, the container ships can carry each container van much cheaper than what a liner can.

Container vans also do not need the amenities needed by the passengers. Moreover, it does not need the service expected of the passengers which need to be fed and be given more than decent accommodations plus some entertainment. Because of that, the crewing needs of a liner is far higher than that of a container ship. All of those means more expense of the part of the liner company. Besides, a RORO liner is more expensive than a container ship for the same size and its insurance is higher.

Ever since the 1980’s, even when the passenger demand was still great, the national shipping companies were earning more from cargo than their passengers. That is true even today when 2GO admits that almost 70% of their revenues are from cargo (and to think under their roof is SuperCat which widens the passenger revenues). Definitely their investment for liners is greater than their cargo ships. Maybe it was only loyalty to their passengers and passenger shipping why they were not quitting this segment. Maybe it is also because of inertia which means just keeping doing the old things.

Lorcon Dumaguete assisted by tugs

If we look at the recent years we can see that for every liner acquired at least 7 container ships were acquired and this is even a conservative estimate. If we look at the last 10 years starting from 2006, only 11 liners came to our shores and that includes the 3 Cebu Ferries, two of which are still used as overnight ships although already converted into small liners. Meanwhile, MARINA registered 80 or more newly-arrived container ships in the same period. These are the container ships of Oceanic Container Lines, Sulpicio Lines/Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, NMC Container Lines, Solid Shipping Lines, Negros Navigation/Caprotec Corporation/2GO, MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP), Moreta Shipping Lines, Meridian Cargo Forwarders, Seaview Cargo Shipping Corporation, Escano Lines/Loadstar Shipping Company and West Ocean Lines and Transport acquired in the last ten years. Now how many container lines is that compared to a sole passenger liner company?

There are few liners sailing now and all are under just one company which is 2GO (since Romblon Shipping Lines has already quit). Meanwhile, container ships are still mushrooming and more container shipping companies are joining the field. Even 20 years ago there were already more container ships than liners. Now the container ships are already outstripping the liners in number. And the trend holds true year after year.

The question is why? Well, the simple answer is the shipping companies won’t invest in liners as it does not make sense. More revenues can be earned from container shipping at less investment with less hassles from regulations and supply needs (like the food needed by the passengers). So why would they enter passenger liner shipping? Better “pets” like containers vans rather than people like the passengers who can raise a ruckus and if the ship sinks then goodbye to all the advertising and service spent for the goodwill. If a cargo ship sinks, the uneducated public and the media almost won’t mind at all.

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A Cargo RORO LCT by Asian Shipping Corporation

If cargo is the bread and butter of shipping it will now go to the container lines because they can actually offer the lower shipping rates. If not it will go to the intermodal trucks which has even lower rates. And arriving now recently are the Cargo RORO LCTs which carry container vans (even from Manila) like those of Roble Shipping Incorporated, Ocean Transport and Asian Shipping Corporation. This new paradigm can offer even lower rates than the container ships.

Sometimes it looks like liners are already passe. But I don’t want them to go because I prefer them over planes and the intermodal buses are sometimes too tiring especially those who are no longer young.

Will the liners survive? Now, that is one question I would not like to answer.