The Diamond Ferries in the Philippines

When the Diamond Ferry Company ordered in 1990 and 1991 their second set of sister ships identical to their first set they ordered earlier, little did they know that the boom times of Japan fueled by the Japan property bubble would soon turn into bust that will bring about years of economic stagnation in their country. Such was the scenario when the Blue Diamond and the Star Diamond came into the Diamond Ferry Company. With the company not being one of the biggest and strongest in Japan, it had more trouble riding out the bad years and so the sister ships had difficulty keeping themselves afloat and it even gave to periods of being laid up.

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The Blue Diamond (Image from http://www.kipio.net)

In 2007, the Diamond Ferry Company and the Blue Highway Line merged to better wear out the storm. This was but natural as they were both majority-controlled already by the stronger shipping company MOL (Mitsui OSK Lines). However, even with the merger the fate of the sister ships did not go any better – they were simply offered for sale from a laid-up condition and for months they were in ship-for-sale sites. In 2007, the Star Diamond was snapped up by China buyers to become the Jiadong Pearl. She was supposedly the stronger ship of the two in the engine department.

That was a puzzling period for me because many shipping investors then were thinking the cruise ship and liner market will go up (and most were disappointed later on). This was about the same time that four liners of Aboitiz Transport Corporation (ATS) were also snapped up by foreign buyers. Quite puzzling for me because the liner prices then were very high as the world metal price suddenly doubled because of the China demand. ATS earned a tidy profit with their opportunistic sale and woe to the shipping companies who bought their liners as none sailed successfully and most were soon for sale after the expenses of refitting and refurbishing (like foreign operators don’t have our Economy class).

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The Star Diamond (Image from advectionfog.net)

The Blue Diamond languished for a while but in 2008 she was acquired by a Korean tour operator and she became the Queen Mary. After about two years, she was again laid up and put up for sale. That time the world metal prices went down to more-or-less normal and ATS was actually among who those who took a look on this ship. They did not purchase this, however, because of a tip that the engines were no longer strong. The ship was, however, was purchased by Negros Navigation Company which lost out in the bidding for the two sister ships of Kansai Kisen K.K. which turned out to be SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 here. The two SuperFerries were sister ships of Star Diamond and Blue Diamond.

So, in 2011, the Blue Diamond came to the Philippines to become the St. Michael The Archangel of Negros Navigation Company (after SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 were fielded by ATS). There were hoots initially as the St. Michael The Archangel can only do 17 knots initially while her ATS sister ships can do 20 knots comfortably. When to think they were all sister ships with exactly the same engines and external measurements. To the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), this proved that the rumors were true regarding the Blue Diamond‘s engines.

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St. Michael The Archangel by James Gabriel Verallo

The St. Michael The Archangel was sent back for some refitting and she was then able to do some 19 knots. She might have become the flagship of Negros Navigation although there were those who say that the smallest and slowest ship of the company, the San Paolo was actually the flagship of the company. The St. Michael The Archangel was only the fourth sailing ship of Negros Navigation in this period when their other sister ships, the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were not reliable enough (with work on their MAN engines, they became reliable later). It seems when a shipping company has problems, their ships also get sick.

Meanwhile, the Jiadong Pearl was released by her China owners in 2010 and she went to Korea as a tourist ship named the Gwangyang Beech. In 2013, she was sold to Negros Navigation and so the Diamond Ferry sister ships were reunited. The ship was named as St. Francis Xavier in the Negros Navigation fleet (but the naming caused confusion to some because previously the company had a liner named the St. Francis of Assisi). Like SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, the St. Francis Xavier has no problem doing 20 knots and she is very reliable too.

When Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) acquired Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to form 2GO, the four sisters all came under one roof. It was St. Michael The Archangel which has a small difference since she had a restaurant-lounge built in the rear sundeck which actually made her better-looking plus it is an appreciated additional passenger facility. St. Francis Xavier, meanwhile, has a small equivalent at the stern. This ship has also a side ramp that is not present in her sister ships. Though sister ships but having different owners before, the four have some minor structural differences if viewed from the outside.

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St. Francis Xavier by Daryl Yting

On the inside, the four has also had similarities in the design and arrangement. But it seems the pair of NENACO have the better and more developed interiors as the former Kansai Kisen ships look too workmanlike and even bland by liner standards. With such better development, the passenger capacities of the NENACO sisters ships are much higher than the former ATS sister ships. The St. Michael The Archangel has a passenger capacity of 1,929 while St. Francis Xavier has a passenger capacity of 1,910. The original passenger capacities of the former ATS ships were only 859 when their length, breadth and superstructure were practically the same as the other two and all retained the dual cargo decks.

The former Diamond Ferries were built by Shin Kurushima Dockyard Company in their Onishi yard in Japan (the sister ships from ATS were built by Kanasashi Company Ltd. Toyohashi Works in Toyohashi, Japan). The St. Michael The Achangel was built in 1990 with the ID IMO 9000455 while St. Francis Xavier was built in 1991 with the ID IMO 8847595. Both had external dimensions of 150.9 meters by 25.0 meters by 13.3 meters. The St. Michael The Archangel has the greater gross tonnage at 17,781 (maybe because of the added restaurant-lounge) while St. Francis Xavier has 15,971. The net tonnages vary too. The St. Michael The Archangel has 5,334 in net tonnage while the St. Francis Xavier has 4,808 in net tonnage. In rated horsepower there is a variance, too. St. Michael The Archangel has 25,200hp like her sisters from ATS while the St. Francis Xavier has only 24,700hp. However, the four are all powered by twin Hitachi-Sulzer engines.

The sisters have the modern bulbous stem and both have transom sterns. Both have two passenger decks and two cargo decks and a dominating single center funnel. 

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St. Michael The Archangel by Mike Baylon

As 2GO ships, the sister ships have no permanent route assignments as in they rotate routes with the other ships of the fleet. However, what separates now the St. Michael The Archangel is her lack of speed compared to her sister ships. Once when I was aboard the Princess of the South going to Manila. I was surprised with how easily we overtook her nearing the Verde Island Passage and our ship was only doing 17 knots. Turns out that before her drydock, she was only running at 14 knots. I heard that lately and from AIS observations that she seldom runs over 17 or 18 knots now which is about two knots below her sisters. It seems the report on weakness the engines was really true. And to think she might have been the primary beneficiary of the parts taken from St. Gregory The Great (the former SuperFerry 20) which was holed by an excursion to the reefs of Guimaras.

There are no reports yet of this kind in St. Francis Xavier. She is as fast and as reliable as the St. Leo The Great (the former SuperFerry 21).The company is proud of her as well as the Ilonggos.

The two former Diamond Ferries look like to be workhorses of 2GO in the years to come. They have finally found a home.

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The Smallest and Last Japan “Cruiseferry” To Come To The Philippines

In the late 1960’s, the “Bypasses of the Sea” came into existence in Japan. These were long-distance ROROs (actually ROPAXes) meant to bypass the crowded roads of Japan which was experiencing a sustained economic boom then in what was called the “Japan Miracle” which brought the former war-defeated and occupied country into the forefront of the ranks of nations (Number 2 in fact later). These “Bypasses of the Sea” were workmanlike and were primarily geared to the trucks and its crews and also to passengers in average comfort. Some of these ROROs actually came to the Philippines when they were retired in Japan like the Filipina Princess, the Princess of Paradise, the Princess of the World, the Manila Bay 1, the Subic Bay 1 and the Mary Queen of Peace.

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Photo by Wakanatsu

In the next decade, aside from the “Bypasses of the Sea”, a new class of ROROs came into existence in Japan. These were bigger and much more comfortable with hotel-like facilities. These were later dubbed as “cruiseferries”, a portmanteau. These were like cruise ships in comfort and service but as the same time these were still “Bypasses of the Sea”. As “cruiseferries”, these were more geared to attract passengers but these still had the car decks for the trucks and sedans. The “cruiseferries” being faster that most ROROs can travel more distances and longer routes and can cover most of their routes in a night or so, in great comfort. “Sanfurawaa” or the series of Sunflower ships were the leader in this new class and three of their ships eventually went to the Philippines after their retirement. They were known as Princess of the Orient, Mabuhay 1 and Princess of Unity in our waters.

The “cruiseferry” class did not last long, however. In the 1980’s, Japan were no longer building them as passengers were already preferring other modes of transport like the budget planes and the now-ubiquitous “Bullet” trains. The Japan shipping companies scaled back in comfort and began dedicating two decks of the ship to rolling cargo. However, there was still enough comfort for those who seek them although it was no longer as opulent as the “cruiseferries”. Dormitories and second-class cabins were the dominant passenger classes now. These class of ships were called the “carferries” and some of these also reached the Philippines when they were retired in Japan. They were known here as the SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17, SuperFerry 18, SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Princess of the Universe, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier.

There are also other Japan companies which ventured into “cruiseferries”. One of these is the Sanpo Kaiun K.K. which is just a small company. It acquired the White Sanpo 2 in 1981 and she was relatively big compared to their previous ships. This ship was well-appointed it qualified into a “cruiseferry” class albeit a little smaller than the other Japan “cruiseferries”. Her route was Kobe-Imabari-Matsuyama. The year she was acquired, Japan shipping companies were still acquiring “cruiseferries”. It will be just be a little later that the “cruiseferries” will be supplanted by the “carferries”.

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Photo by Britz Salih

In 2000, White Sanpo 2 came to the Philippines after 19 years of service in Japan and she became the SuperFerry 14 of William, Gothong and Aboitiz or WG&A. This was the first ferry not originally ordered by the partners which means it was already the merged company which acquired her. She was also the last Japan “cruiseferry” that came here. Passengers were asking why the later big ferries from Japan were no longer as luxurious. The reason was it was already “carferries” that were coming and no longer “cruiseferries”. Actually, the presence of two car decks is the giveaway the ship that came is a “carferry”.

The SuperFerry 14 was not really as small ship since her length was 155 meters which is nearly 5 meters longer than the sister ships SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier and the sister ships St. Peter The Apostle and St. Joseph The Worker and she was just two meter shorter than SuperFerry 8. However if compared to the SuperFerry 6, SuperFerry 10, SuperFerry 12, the Princess of the Universe, the Princess of Paradise, the Princess of the World, the Princess of New Unity, the Mary Queen of Peace, the Manila Bay 1 and the Subic Bay 1 (and of course the earlier Filipina Princess) she would look “small”. It was simply the time that our shipping companies were acquiring bigger and bigger liners and with large passenger capacities too. During that period, liners of 3,000-passenger capacity were already becoming the norm.

The White Sanpo 2 or SuperFerry 14 was actually 155.6 meters by 23.6 meters in dimension with a depth of 13.0 meters. Her gross tonnage (GT) was 10,181 meters in Japan and 10,192 meters in the Philippines. The reason for the almost identical GT was her superstructure here was no longer modified and no decks were added. She was one of the early big liners here where the superstructure was left untouched and the passenger capacity was not maximized. Others like her in this treatment were the Mabuhay 1 or SuperFerry 10 and the Princess of New Unity. For her bigness, SuperFerry 14 only had a passenger capacity of 1,757. Other liners of her length and in her time had passenger capacities of well over 2,000 persons. Her net tonnage (NT) was 4,957.

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The ship with the green sundeck is SuperFerry 14 (copyrights are in the photo)

The White Sanpo 2, the future SuperFerry 14 was built by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. in their Shimonoseki yard in Japan in 1981. She has three passenger decks and a single car deck which was accessible by ramps at the bow and the stern. Her design and lines were pretty much traditional of her period. The ship has a semi-bulbous stem and a transom stern and powered by two main engines, all of which were standard in the design of her era. Her permanent ID was IMO 8004210.

Her speed was also par for the course for the big liners then of 150 meters length in the Philippines except for those that didn’t look sleek enough (like the Manila Bay 1 and SuperFerry 6 which looked fat and were not capable of 20 knots here). Since her design speed in Japan was 21 knots, she was still capable of 20 knots here especially since not much metal was added because no decks were added to her. That speed came from a pair of SEMT-Pielstick engines that developed 23,400 horsepower.

As a former “cruiseferry”, SuperFerry 14 had luxurious interiors and accommodations many of which were simply carried over from her Japan features. Since WG&A had many good ships already in the Cebu and Iloilo routes, she was then used by the company to compete with the Negros Navigation ships in the Manila-Bacolod-Cagayan de Oro route. Bacolod was once closed to other shipping companies except for Negros Navigation since they operate privately the only suitable port for big liners then, the Banago port. With the opening of the BREDCO port, WG&A challenged in the Manila-Bacolod-Cagayan de Oro route and SuperFerry 14 was more than a match to the Mary The Queen and the St. Joseph The Worker of NENACO in the Cagayan de Oro route.

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A drawing by Ken Ledesma

The SuperFerry 14 did not sail long, however. On the night of February 27, 2004, a bomb exploded in a Tourist section on a lower deck of the ship an hour and a half after leaving Manila North Harbor when the ship was at the mouth of Manila Bay. The explosion triggered a fire which soon engulfed the whole ship. The firefighting crew of the ship was overwhelmed and the rescue was chaotic. Some passengers simply jumped into the dark sea and some were feared drowned in the aftermath. To think, it was even fortunate that the incident happened in waters near where rescue ships can reach the ship fast.

Rescuers including tugs and a helicopter tried to douse the fire consuming the ship and eventually the fire was controlled. The ship was towed to Bataan even while burning as capsizing will mean a greater loss. On shore, the vessel capsized but she was righted and search and rescue operations continued. With the vessel afloat, rescuers were able to comb the ship and probers investigated the cause of the fire. There was really a blast site that looked like it came from a bomb. The claims of the crew of a bomb exploding was validated.

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Photo from http://www.infolagoon.com

Although the Abu Sayyaf Group immediately claimed responsibility for the firebombing, the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo initially dismissed a terrorist attack and instead blamed it on some sort of an accident (the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had the habit of denying terrorist attacks until conclusively proven). But later when suspects from the Rajah Solaiman Movement affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf were captured and admitted what happened to SuperFerry 14, the government changed tune and admitted that what brought the ferry down was really a bomb placed inside a TV set.

Whatever and later, the estimate was some 63 people died and about 53 were missing in the incident for a total body count of about 116. That figure does not include the wounded. Some of the casualties were bright students from an elite school, the MSU-IIT-IDS of Iligan City in Lanao and that included the second-ranking student of the graduating class (she was later given a posthumous joint Salutatorian award by the school).

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Photo from The 4Freedoms Library

SuperFerry 14 never sailed again as her condition is BER (Beyond Economic Repair). In databases, she is marked as CTL (Complete Total Loss). There were pictures of her where the fire was even consuming the bridge of the ship. Besides, passengers don’t want to ride a ship where there was a lot of dead in a previous accident.

A very fine ship but SuperFerry 14 was really unfortunate.

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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