The Convergence, Parallels, Rivalry and Divergence of Sweet Lines and William Lines

For introduction, Sweet Lines is a shipping company that started in Tagbilaran, Bohol while William Lines is a shipping company started in Cebu City after the war while having earlier origins in Misamis Occidental before the war. And like many shipping lines whose founders are of Chinese extraction, the founders of both Sweet Lines and William Lines were first into copra trading before branching into shipping. And long after the two became national shipping lines Bol-anons and people of Misamisnons still have a close identification and affinity to the two shipping companies and in fact were the still the prides of their provinces.

1950 William Lines

1950 William Lines ad. Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

William Lines became a national liner company in 1945 just right after the end of the war and almost exactly 20 years before Sweet Lines which was just a Visayas-Mindanao shipping company after the war whose main base is Bohol. The company just became a national liner company when it was able to buy half of the ships and routes of General Shipping Corporation when that company decided to quit the inter-island routes in 1965 after a boardroom squabble among the partner families owning it. And so William Lines had quite a head start over Sweet Lines. Now, readers might be puzzled now where is the convergence.

People who are already old enough now might think the convergence of the two shipping companies, a rivalry in fact, started when Sweet Lines fielded the luxury liner Sweet Faith in the Manila-Cebu route in 1970. That ship raised a new bar in liner shipping then plus it started a new paradigm in Cebu, that of the fast cruiser liner which is more dedicated to passengers and their comfort than cargo and has the highest level of passenger accommodations and amenities. It was really hard to match the Sweet Faith then for she was really a luxury liner even when she was still in Europe. That fast cruiser liner was not just some converted passenger-cargo or cargo-passenger ship which was the origins of practically of all the liners of the postwar period until then.

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Credits to Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Actually, the rivalry of Sweet Lines and William Lines started from convergence. William Lines, in their first 20 years of existence, was basically concentrating on the Southern Mindanao routes but of course its ships which were all ex-”FS” ships then called on Cebu and Tagbilaran first before heading south. Aside from Southern Mindanao, the only other area where William Lines concentrated was the Iligan Bay routes, specifically Iligan and Ozamis, near where the founder and the business of William Lines originated. But in 1966, William Lines started its acquisition of cargo-passenger ships from Europe for conversion here like what Go Thong & Company earlier did and what Sweet Lines will soon follow into. It was actually an expansion as they were not disposing of their old ex-”FS” ships and naturally an expansion of the fleet will mean seeking of new routes or concentration. 

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

Sweet Lines, meanwhile, had an initial concentration of routes in the Eastern Visayas as a liner company which was dictated by the purchase of half of the fleet of General Shipping Corporation which consisted of five liners which were all ex-”FS” ships except for the new local-built General Roxas plus the Sea Belle of Royal Lines which was going out of business. But Sweet Lines immediately expanded and was also plying already the Cebu and Tagbilaran routes from Manila, naturally, because their main base was Tagbilaran. Then they also entered the Iligan Bay routes in 1967 and it was even using the good Sweet Rose (the former General Roxas) there which was a heavy challenge to all the shipping companies serving there that were just using ex-”FS” ships there previously. Of course, not to be outdone William Lines later brought there their brand-new Misamis Occidental, their flagship then, in 1970. If William Lines had two frequencies a week to the two ports of Iligan Bay in 1967, then that was the frequency of Sweet Lines too. And if William Lines had twice a week frequency to Cebu and Tagbilaran, then that was also the frequency of the expanding Sweet Lines. Their only difference in 1967 was William Lines had routes to Southern Mindanao while Sweet Lines had none there but the latter had routes to the strong shipping region then of Eastern Visayas while William Lines had no route then there.

Another area of confrontation of the two shipping companies was the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes. Sweet Lines was long a power then there especially since that was their place of origin. They then relegated there most of the ex-”FS” ships like the ones they acquired from General Shipping and thus in the late 1960’s they had the best ships sailing there. Meanwhile, William Lines which was also a player there also then used some of their ex-”FS” ships which were formerly in the liner routes (William Lines had a few ex-”FS” ships to spare since they bought five of those from other local shipping companies and they already were receiving former cargo-passenger ships from Europe starting in 1966). So by this time Sweet Lines and William Lines were not only competing in Cebu and Tagbilaran and in Iligan Bay but also in the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes.

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Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen 

In the late 1960’s the government provided a loan window for the purchase of brand-new liners and among the countries that provided the funds for that was what was known as West Germany then (this was before the German reunification). From that window, the new liner company Sweet Lines ordered the Sweet Grace from Weser Seebeck of Bremerhaven, West Germany in 1968. William Lines followed suit by ordering a brand-new liner not from West Germany but from Japan which turned out to be the Misamis Occidental and this seemed to be taking the path of the expansion of Negros Navigation Company which was ordering brand-new liners from Japan shipbuilders. 

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Credits to Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

Imagine for William Lines fielding the brand-new Misamis Occidental in Cebu in 1970 only to be upset by the more luxurious and much faster Sweet Faith in the same year. And that was aside from the also-good Sweet Grace and Sweet Rose also calling in Cebu. Maybe that was the reason, that of not being too outgunned, that William Lines immediately ordered a new ship from Japan, a sister ship of the Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company but with a more powerful engine so she can top or at least match the speed of the Sweet Faith and that turned out later to be the legendary liner Cebu City. From its fielding in 1972, the battle of Cebu City and Sweet Faith was the stuff of legends (was using blocks of ice to cool down the engine room of Sweet Faith at full trot a stuff of legend?)

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

As background to that, in 1970 with only the brand-new liner Misamis Occidental William Lines had to fend off Sweet Faith, Sweet Rose, also the first Sweet Sail which was a former liner of Southern Lines that was not an ex-”FS” ship but much faster and at times also the brand-new liner Sweet Grace . William Lines had a few converted cargo-passenger ships from Europe calling in Cebu already on the way to Southern Mindanao then but Sweet Lines had the same number of that also. If William Lines found aggressiveness in ship purchases from the mid-1960’s, Sweet Lines turned out to be more aggressive that in a short period of less than a decade it was already in the coattails of William Lines over-all and even beating it to Cebu, the backyard of William Lines. That was how aggressive was Sweet Lines in their initial ascent as a national liner company. And would anyone believe that in 1970 Sweet Lines was no longer using any ex-”FS” ship in its national liner routes, the first national liner company to do so (when other competitors were still using that type well in to the 1980’s)? So their ad their they were modern seems it was not a made-up stuff only.

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A former cargo-passenger ship from Europe using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao route. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

But that was not even the end of the expansion of Sweet Lines which the company penetrated the Southern Mindanao, the bread and butter of William Lines (note: Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co. and Philippine Steam Navigation Co. were stronger there having more ships) using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, a route that William Lines do not serve. It is actually a shortcut, as pointed out by Sweet Lines but there are not many intermediate ports that can be served there to increase the volume of the cargo and the passengers (and so Sweet Lines passed through more ports before heading to Surigao and Davao). Besides, the seas of the eastern seaboard are rough many months of the year and maybe that was the reason why Sweet Lines used their bigger former cargo-passenger ships from Europe rather than using their small ex-”FS” ships (in this period their competitors to Davao were still using that type).

And so, in 1972, William Lines entered the stronghold of Sweet Lines, which it dominated, the port of Tacloban which the company was not serving before. Was that to repay the compliments of Sweet Lines entering their Iligan Bay bastion and their ports of Cebu and Tagbilaran plus the foray of Sweet Lines in Davao? William Lines entered Tacloban alright but it was a tepid attempt at first by just using an ex-”FS” ship (maybe they just want to take away some cargo). Their main challenge in Tacloban will come three years later in 1975 with their fast cruiser liner Tacloban City, only the third of its type in William Lines after the liners Misamis Occidental and Cebu City and that maybe shows how itching was William Lines in returning the compliments. Or showing up Sweet Lines.

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Where were the other leading national liner companies in this battle of the two? Regarding Gothong & Company, I think their sights were more aimed at the leading shipping company Compania Maritima plus in filling the requirements of strategic partner Lu Do & Lu Ym which was scooping all the the copra that they can get. Actually, the Go Thong & Company and Compania Maritima both had overseas lines then. Meanwhile, the Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) and plus Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (revived as a separate entity in 1966 after the buy-out of the other half of General Shipping Corporation) and Cebu Bohol Ferry Company, a subsidiary of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which are operating as one is competing neither here or there as it seems they were just content on keeping what was theirs and that the interests of Everett Steamship, the American partner of Aboitiz in PSNC will be protected and later cornered when the Laurel-Langley Agreement lapses in 1974. Plus Aboitiz through the Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works were raking it all in servicing the ships of the competition including the lengthening of the ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships of their competitors (plus of course their own). Their routes are so diverse and even quixotic that I cannot see their focal point. It is not Cebu for sure and whereas their rivals were already acquiring new ships they were moored in maintaining their so-many ex-”FS” ships (they had then the most in the country). Also in owning Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works they were confident they can make these ships run forever as they had lots of spare parts in stock and maybe that was through their American connection (not only through Everett Steamship but the Aboitizes are also American citizens). Besides, in Everett Steamship they were also in overseas routes and having overseas routes plus domestic shipping was the hallmark of the first tier of shipping companies then aside from having more ships. In this first tier, the Philippine President Lines (PPL) was also in there but later they surrendered their domestic operations.

Meanwhile, the greatest thrust of Gothong & Company it seems was to serve the needs and interests of Lu Do & Lu Ym but it was a strategic partnership that brought Gothong a lot of dividends so much so that before their break-up in 1972 they might have already been ahead of Compania Maritima in the inter-island routes with all the small ships that they are sailing in the regional routes aside from the national routes. Gothong & Company as might not be realized by many is actually a major regional shipping company too and with a bigger area than that served by Sweet Lines and William Lines for they were operating a lot of small ferries whose primary role is to transport the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra and coconut oil concern then in the country and carrying passengers is just secondary. In the Visayas-Mindanao routes, the Top 3 were actually Go Thong & Company, Sweet Lines and William Lines, in that order maybe. From Cebu, Go Thong had small ships to as far as Tawi-tawi and the Moro Gulf plus the eastern seaboard of Mindanao and Samar. Sweet Lines, however was very strong in passenger department.

In the early 1970’s, many will be surprised if I will say that the fleets of William Lines and Sweet Lines were at near parity but the former had a slight pull. And that was really a mighty climb by Sweet Lines from just being a major regional shipping company, a result of their aggressiveness and ambition. Imagine nearly catching up William Lines, an established shipping company with loads of political connection (think of Ferdinand Marcos, a good friend of William Chiongbian, the founder) and topping the likes of whatever General Shipping Company, Southern Lines and Escano Lines have ever reached. Entering the late 1970’s, Sweet Lines (and William Lines) were already beginning to threaten the place of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (including the integrated Philippine Steam Navigation Corporation) which will drop off a lot subsequently after they stopped buying ships after 1974.

Where did the divergence of the two very comparable shipping companies began? It began from 1975 when William Lines started acquiring the next paradigm-changing type of ships, the surplus fast cruiser liners from Japan which Sweet Lines declined to match but which the rising successor-to-Gothong Sulpicio Lines did. At just the start of the 1980’s with the success from this type of ship William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were already jostling to replace the tottering Compania Maritima from its top perch. It seems Sweet Lines failed to realize the lesson that the former cargo-passenger ships from Europe and the brand-new Sweet Grace and the good Sweet Rose fueled their rise in the late 1960’s and that the acquired luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home continued their rise at the start of the 1970’s. And these former cargo-passenger ships from Europe also propelled Gothong & Company and William Lines in their ascent. Why did Sweet Lines stop acquiring good liners? Was there a financial reason behind their refusal to join the fast cruiser phenomenon? Well, they were not the only ones which did not join the fast cruiser liner bandwagon.

The biggest blunder of Sweet Lines was when they declared in 1978 that henceforth they will just acquire small RORO passenger ships. I do not know if they were imitating Sulpicio Lines which went for small ROROs first (but then that company had fast cruiser liners from Japan). That might have been good for their regional routes but not for the liner routes. And to think their luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home might already conk out anytime because of old age (yes, both were gone in two years). And so for a short period Sweet Lines have no good liners for Cebu, the time William Lines was fielding their Dona Virginia, the biggest and fastest liner when it was fielded and Sulpicio Lines was fielding the Philippine Princess. What a blasphemy and turn-around! In 1970, just ten years earlier, Sweet Lines was dominating William Lines in the Cebu route. That was a miscalculation from which Sweet Lines never seemed to recover. From fielding the best there, Sweet Lines suddenly had no horse. And so the next chapter of the luxury liner wars in the premier Manila-Cebu route was fought not by William Lines and Sweet Lines but by William Lines and the surging Sulpicio Lines. In just a decade’s time Sweet Lines forgot that it was modernity in ships and aggression in routes that brought them to where they were.

1980 Dona Virginia

Credits to Daily Express and Gorio Belen

When Sweet Lines acquired the Sweet RORO in 1982 to battle again in the Manila-Cebu route it was as if they imitated the strategy of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) to go direct into the RORO or ROPAX paradigm and bypass the fast cruiser liners altogether (but then where was CAGLI in the totem pole of liner companies even if they bypassed the fast cruiser liner stage?). But by then their former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already failing and will very soon be gone. The net effect was the Sweet Lines liner total was regressing even though they acquired the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983 to pair the Sweet RORO. The reason for this is its former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already in its last gasps and the small ROROs were never really suited for liner duty except for the direct routes to Tagbilaran and Tacloban. If studied it can be shown that when a liner company stops at some time to buy liners sufficient in numbers and size then they get left behind. This is also what happened to Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines, the reason the fell by the wayside in the 1980’s). And that is what happened to Sweet Lines just a little bit later and so its near-parity with Williams Lines which surged in the 1970’s and 1980’s was broken. And that completed their divergence.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the early 1990’s, Sweet Lines will completely fail and stop all shipping operations, in liners, regional shipping and cargo operations (through their Central Shipping Corporation) and sell their ships with some of the ships sadly being broken up (a few of their ships were also garnished by creditors). Meanwhile, William Lines was still trying then to catch up with Sulpicio Lines that had overtaken them through a big splash in big and fast ROPAXes in 1988.

Sweet Lines benefited in the middle of the 1960’s with the quitting of General Shipping and Royal Lines. Later, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines benefited with the retreat of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the late 1970’s. In the next decade, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines benefited from the collapse of Compania Maritima in the crisis years at the tailend of the Marcos dictatorship. Sweet Lines did not benefit from that because they were not poised to because of their grave error in 1978.

When Sweet Lines collapsed in the early 1990’s it seems among those which benefited was the revived Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which was helped in getting back to the liner business by Jebsens of Norway (think SuperFerry). Well, that’s just the way it is in competition. It is a rat race and one can never pause or stop competing as the others will simply swallow the weak.

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The First Liner Built in the Philippines After World War II

In 1957, President Carlos P. Garcia ascended to Malacanang after the death of President Ramon Magsaysay and thereafter he won the Philippine presidency in his own right. While President Magsaysay worked very closely with the Americans and relied on them for the economic development of the country, President Garcia rolled out his “Filipino First” policy. Under that policy, he tried to promote Philippine industries and supported Filipino industrialists, to the consternation of some Americans used to having their way in the country, given first preference and who treated Filipinos like their wards.

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Keel-laying of Hull No.1 (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Among the industries President Garcia tried to push forward was shipbuilding (shipbuilding is selling steel too and on the same track President Garcia encouraged steel-making which resulted in the establishment of IISMI or Iligan Integrated Steel Mills Inc. which later became the National Steel Corporation or NSC). That made sense, at least on paper, as our country is an archipelago and hence we need a lot of ships. From an enterprise concerned with refitting and lengthening of ships (where before this was done in Hongkong), NASSCO (National Shipyards & Steel Corporation) went into shipbuilding and Hull No. 1 was laid in the NASSCO shipyard (the Bataan National Shipyard) in Mariveles, Bataan in 1957.

Lacking the experience and equipment maybe, the ship took too long to complete. Well, we are a country where engineering is still in infancy. We are not a country where work is fast and based on a production line and our craftsmen are not used to mass production. That is what we get by being proud of our jeepneys and our talyers. Yes, it can fabricate anything but the speed and quality is low. Essentially, we are a country of fabricators.

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Hull No. 1 as the General Roxas (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Maybe there was a problem of timing and priority too. In the time Hull No. 1 was under construction it was also the same time that reparations ships were beginning to come to the Philippines because the final peace treaty between Japan and her victim countries was already signed. Reparations ships came from the reparations payment of Japan as settlement of the damages she inflicted because of the war she launched in the Pacific in 1941 (but it was just basically payment for public works and infrastructure damage and did not include personal damages which were never paid by Japan unlike Germany).

Hull No. 1 was financed by a loan from the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines to the tune of P2.5 million or a little over $ 1 million dollars then. Hull No. 1 was launched on July 1959 and completed as a passenger-cargo ship in May 1960 and she became the ship General Roxas of the General Shipping Company. This company previously just operated a fleet of former “FS” ships before which were cargo ships converted into passenger-cargo use. The General Roxas was way ahead in size, quality and comfort compared to the ex-”FS” ships and she was probably the flagship of General Shipping Company which operated routes to Palawan, Romblon, Masbate, Bicol, the Visayas and Northern Mindanao.

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General Roxas when newly-fielded (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

The General Roxas’ external measurements were 84.7 meters by 12.3 meters by 6.7 meters in L x B x D with a Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) of 1,757 tons. Her Net Register Tonnage (NRT) was 968 and her load capacity in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 1,544 tons. The ship was equipped by a single Uraga engine of 2,200 horsepower which gave her a top sustained speed of 13.5 knots when still new. The General Roxas has two sister ships built also by NASSCO and these were the General del Pilar (later the Mactan of Compania Maritima) and the Governor B. Lopez of Southern Lines Incorporated. The latter was built in the same yard and almost simultaneously with General Roxas.

The General Roxas’ hull steel, engine and navigational equipment all came from Japan. The ship had air-conditioning and in those days it was practically what defined what is a luxury liner. Her First Class accommodations, lounges and dining rooms were all air-conditioned. This ship had three passenger decks and for handling cargo she had booms in the front section or bow of the ship. Cargo was stowed below the passenger decks and above and on the engine deck. The ship is a cruiser ship (it was not yet the time of the ROROs which can load vehicles through ramps) with a high prow. The ship later was assigned the IMO Number 5128015.

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A miniature to show underwater portion of General Roxas (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

In General Shipping Company, she was the second General Roxas as the company had an earlier ship named General Roxas too and that was a former “FS” ship (and that is the beauty of IMO Numbers as it can differentiate ships with the same names). In General Shipping Corporation the first route of General Roxas was Manila-Iloilo-Pulupandan-Iligan. Iligan then was beginning to boom because of the Maria Cristina power plant which provided cheap hydroelectric power and Iloilo and Pulupandan ports served two big and progressive islands.

But despite two new passenger-cargo ships and a healthy fleet, in 1965, after a boardroom dispute General Shipping Company abandoned inter-island shipping and moved into international shipping. Their local fleet and routes were then divided between Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the former regional shipping company Sweet Lines Incorporated which then became a national liner company (however, the new ship General del Pilar became the Mactan of Compania Maritima). Among the ships acquired by Sweet Lines was the General Roxas which became the Sweet Rose in the new company.

In the new liner fleet of Sweet Lines (to distinguish it from the regional fleet of Sweet Lines which mainly had the small ex-”F” ships), the Sweet Rose was the biggest and best ship. However, the tactic then of Sweet Lines was to field their ships not on the primary routes and so Sweet Rose was assigned the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu, v.v. route. Right after fielding Sweet Rose was the newest, the best and fastest ship in the route that only had ex-”FS” ships before and this helped stabilize the company in the national routes for she then dominated that route.

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Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen

The ship’s next route was Manila-Cebu-Iligan-Ozamis route when the Sweet Grace, a brand-new ship from West Germany arrived. That only confirmed that the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu, v.v. route was the primary route of Sweet Lines before the arrival of the fast cruiser liner Sweet Faith in 1970 and Sweet Rose was the flagship of the company before 1968 when Sweet Grace came.

In the early 1970’s, the Sweet Rose was returned to the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu, v.v. route in a pairing with the Sweet Grace. That indicated the level of importance Sweet Lines assigned to the route which was not high in the priority of other shipping companies (well, before William Lines entered the route with their fast cruiser liner Tacloban City in 1975) and that jeopardized a bread and butter route for Sweet Lines as the Tacloban City was a faster and superior ship.

The Sweet Rose stayed on the route though but she now called in Masbate instead of Catbalogan leaving Sweet Grace to serve that port. However, she was assigned again the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route after Sweet Lines invaded Mindanao routes outside Northern Mindanao and Sweet Grace did the Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga route.

Sweet Rose never left the Catbalogan/Tacloban route again but in the 1980’s she began having unreliability in her engine and this trouble even reached the authorities. Engines of her period were not really that tough and she had the bad luck of having been equipped with an Uraga engine which was not a top of the line Japanese engine. She too had difficulty coping with Tacloban City and the Dona Angelina, the ship used by Sulpicio Lines when it entered the Catbalogan/Tacloban route just before Tacloban City came. The Dona Angelina which came from Europe also had air-conditioning like the Tacloban City. As a footnote, Sweet Rose also went up against her sister ship in the route when the Mactan was fielded there by Compania Maritima. That was before Mactan sank in 1973.

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Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

In the great political and economic crisis that started with the Aquino assassination in 1983, Sweet Lines culled old liners and the Sweet Rose was among them. Others were the former European ships Sweet Bliss, Sweet Life and Sweet Love, ships they used in the Davao route via the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. That also included Sweet Sound which was a former “FS” ship. It was no dishonor to Sweet Lines because a lot a ships were cut up in this period when the industrial economy shrank and many shipping companies collapsed or shut down like the former No. 1 Compania Maritima.

Sweet Lines was broken up just locally in Acuario Marketing, a local ship-breaking specialist in Navotas in 1984. She was just 24 years old then but actually she was able to outlast her two sister ships. Maybe she was not just good enough for a 30-year service like the former ships from Europe and Japan (the Tacloban City which was built in 1962 lasted until the late 1990’s but then she has the better Mitsubishi engine). The Dona Angelina also lasted over 30 years of sailing.

Sweet Rose is a distant memory now but she holds a record that won’t ever be broken and that is being the first liner ever built in the country after World War II. She was also one of the ships that brought Sweet Lines to her peak in the late 1970’s.

The Fast Cruiser Liners of William Lines

1978 William Lines

Photo research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Among the local passenger liner shipping companies, it was William Lines which believed the most in the fast cruiser liners. They acquired the greatest number of them and promoted them well. Those became the engines of William Lines in their quest to be Number 1 in inter-island shipping and surpass the long pillar of inter-island shipping, the somewhat-legendary Compania Maritima which has Spanish origins and politically well-connected. Well, Don William Chiongbian was politically very well-connected, too as President Ferdinand Marcos was a good friend of him.

Fast” is a relative term. In the 1960’s, that meant just about 16 knots. In the period when William Lines bet big on fast cruiser liners, the 1970’s, that already meant about 18 knots or better. In the late 1980’s and especially in the 1990’s, “fast” meant 20 knots already. In the subsequent decades, “fast” for liners did not creep higher than 20 knots because the fuel prices that crept up and patronage for liners has already began to weaken gradually.

In the 1970’s, William Lines invested in six fast cruiser liners. That began with two brand-new ships, the “Misamis Occidental”, which arrived in 1970 and named after the province origin of the founder Don William Chiongbian. In 1972, the “Cebu City” came and it then engaged in a legendary battle with the first “Sweet Faith” of Sweet Lines in the premier Manila-Cebu route at 20 knots. The fast cruiser liners of William Lines were named after cities of the country that were also their ports of call.

When effects of “free float” of the peso (which meant uncontrolled devaluation in direct language) took hold, the Phillippine shipping companies can no longer afford to acquire brand-new ships and so after 1972 all the liner acquisitions were second-hand already. However, many of these were ships just a decade old or even younger. And so, four second-hand cruiser liners came to William Lines with a gap of one year in their arrivals.

The next fast cruiser to come to William Lines was the “Tacloban City” which they acquired in 1975. This was followed by the “Manila City” in 1976, the “Cagayan de Oro City” in 1977 and finally the “Ozamis City” in 1978. I do not know if “Dona Virginia” can be added to the list as she was also RORO (but with cruiser lines) and she came in December of 1979. Among the named cruisers it was only the “Tacloban City”, the smallest which has difficulty reaching 18 knots but 17.5 knots is already near there.

After that series came a long respite for William Lines in the acquisition of passenger liners and their next acquisition already came in 1987, a RORO already, the “Masbate I”. In that interregnum, they concentrated on building their container ship fleet which was called the “Wilcon”. Two in that series were RORO Cargo ships that can also carry passengers, the “Wilcon I” which came in 1978 and the “Wilcon IV” which came in 1979.

The “Misamis Occidental” was a ship ordered by William Lines from Hayashikane Shipbuilding & Engineering Company and she was built in their Nagasaki shipyard and she was delivered in December of 1970. The ship measured 88.9 meters by 13.5 meters and her cubic volume expressed in gross tons was 1,945. The ship had a top speed of 18 knots and she had a passenger capacity of about 650. She could have sailed faster with a more powerful engine but maybe William Lines did not see the “Sweet Faith” coming for Sweet Lines. William Lines referred to the “Misamis Occidental” as their first luxury liner.

The “Cebu City”, a great flagship was ordered by William Lines from Niigata Engineering and she was built in Niigata, Japan and delivered on September, 1972. Her dimensions were 98.8 meters by 13.8 meters with a cubic measure of 2,452 gross tons. Powered by a 5,670-horsepower Hitachi engine she had a top speed of 20.5 knots and she had a passenger capacity of 807. I am sure that when William Lines ordered her there was a specification that the ship will be able to at least match the “Sweet Faith” of Sweet Lines in speed and also in the accommodations. The name of the ship clearly indicated her first route.

The “Tacloban City”, originally the “Naminoue Maru” of Oshima Unyu was built by Sanoyas Shoji Company in 1962 and she came to William Lines in 1975. Her measurements were 91.1 meters by 12.8 meters and her cubic volume was 2,244 gross tons. She had an original speed of 18.5 knots from her single 5,800-horsepower Mitsubishi engine but being no longer new when she came she was only capable of 17.5 knots when she was fielded here. She was advertised by William Lines as the “Cheetah of the Sea” and she had a passenger capacity of 1,274. She was the first in William Lines to breach the 1,000-passenger capacity mark and she had the highest passenger capacity in William Lines fleet when she was fielded. The name of the ship also indicated her first route and she was designed to take on the “Sweet Grace” of Sweet Lines and the “Don Sulpicio” of Sulpicio Lines which in the route and both the two had airconditioning.

The “Manila City” which came in 1976 was originally the “Nihon Maru” of Mitsubishi Shintaku Ginko. She was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in their Shimonoseki yard in 1970. The ship had the external dimensions 106.3 meters by 14.0 meters and her cubic measurement was 2,998 gross tons. From her twin Mitsubishi engines developing 8,800 horsepower, she had a top speed of 20.5 knots. Her design speed was a match to “Cebu City” but being older she was some half knot slower. However, when she came she had the highest horsepower in the William Lines fleet. She could have been named the “Davao City” to reflect her first route but William Lines already had a ship by this name. Being the biggest in the William Lines passenger fleet, William Lines assigned her a worthy name. The “Manila City” had a passenger capacity of 1,388. She was the best ship in the Davao route when she was fielded there.

The “Cagayan de Oro City” which arrived in 1977 was the former “Hibiscus” in Japan or the “Haibisukasu” of the group Terukuni Yusen KK. She was also built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or MHI in 1970 in the Shimonoseki yard. She was 89.2 meters in length, 13.0 meters in breadth and 1,999 gross tons in cubic capacity. She had two Niigata engines developing 7,000 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 19 knots. The ship was assigned the route of her namesake city and she was the best ship in the route when first assigned there The “Cagayan de Oro” had a passenger capacity of 1,200.

The “Ozamis City” which was the “Fuji” of the Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha in Japan was another ship built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the Shimonoseki yard. The ship was completed in 1965 and she came in 1978 and she had the dimensions 91.7 meters by 13.3 meters with 2,865 gross tons as cubic measure. She had a single 4,900-horsepower Kawasaki-MAN engine which gave her a top speed of 18.5 knots. This ship was also assigned to her namesake city and held that route for a long time. She was also the best ship to Ozamis when first assigned there. Her passenger capacity was 1,214.

The “Manila City” was the biggest of the six and she also had the highest passenger capacity and she was the speediest together with “Cebu City”. She was referred to by William Lines as the “Sultan of the Sea” and maybe those were the reasons why (and maybe there are also true sultans along her route). This ship held the Davao route for a very long time until she was consumed by fire. She was never assigned another route in her career here indicating her specs were high that she was still competitive one-and-a-half decade after she was first fielded.

As flagship, the “Cebu City” held the Manila-Cebu route and was plying it twice week. The fast among the fast “Manila City” was holding the long route to Davao via Zamboanga. The “Cagayan de Oro City” was sailing the Manila-Dumaguete-Cagayan de Oro-Iligan-Cebu route. The “Misamis Occidental” was being used in the Manila-Cebu-Ozamis-Iligan-Dumaguete route. The “Tacloban City” was sailing the Tacloban route twice a week and one of that calls in Catbalogan too. Finally, the “Ozamis City” was running the overnight Cebu-Ozamis route.

By and large the six (the seventh was the “Dona Virginia”) were the primary liners of William Lines in the 1970’s up to the end of the 1980’s. William Lines was relatively late in the fielding of ROROs and the six shouldered on even though the competition already had RORO liners. It will already be 1989 when William Lines will be able acquire a big RORO liner, the “Zamboanga City” and the RORO liner flagship, the “Sugbu” will arrive only in 1990.

The six had successful careers but the majority did not reach old age. Of the six, only the “Misamis Occidental” and the “Tacloban City” will escape hull-loss accidents. The “Cagayan de Oro City” will be hit by fire in Ozamis City port on June 22, 1985. She capsized there but she was refloated and towed to Cebu where she was broken up in 1986.

The “Ozamis City” will be wrecked off Siquijor on October 22, 1990. She was towed to Manila for demolition where she was broken up on November of 1991. “Manila City”, meanwhile, will be hit by a fire in Cebu Shipyard on February 16, 1991. She will be declared a constructive total loss or CTL and she was broken up in 1992.

The most publicized loss among the six was the sinking of “Cebu City” on December 1, 1994 after a collision with the Malaysian container ship, the Pacific International Lines’ “Kota Suria”. This happened at the mouth of Manila Bay when she was late on her way and hurrying to Tagbilaran, Bohol. About 145 persons lost their lives in that accident that happened before dawn.

The “Misamis Occidental” and “Tacloban City” still acceded to the “Great Merger” (which failed) that created the giant shipping company WG&A Philippines. “Tacloban City” was later relegated to the subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation but did not sail long in that company. Not being a RORO she was offered for sale early and in 1997, the Sampaguita Shipping Company of Zamboanga purchased her and she became the “Sampaguita Ferry 1” of the said company.

The “Misamis Occidental” which was then just being used as an Ozamis-Cebu overnight ferry before the merger was also sent to the WG&A subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation and also offered for sale early because she was not a RORO. Having no takers, she was refurbished and re-engined and she was given the new name “Our Lady of Montserrat”. However, she was disposed off to the breakers within two years. She was broken up in China on June 15, 2000.

Today, there are no more traces of the six.

The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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http://image.slidesharecdn.com/easternvisayasfinal-150407210918-conversion-gate01/95/eastern-visayas-biliran-2-638.jpg?cb=1428459126

As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

1979 Dona Angelina

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.