The Sweet RORO

Many, when talking about the Sweet RORO of Sweet Lines Incorporated which is pf Bohol origin talk about her technicals and that is not wrong as there is nothing incorrect in admiring the technical merits of a ship especially that of a luxury liner. But to me I also tend to look at the historical position of things and how they interacted as I am also keen on the historical perspective of the ferries when they came and also their roles. After all, ferries make the shipping companies, at least in the early decades of our shipping history. And, it is in the great liners in which shipping companies are identified by the public.

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The Sweet RORO in original livery. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

The Sweet RORO came to Sweet Lines when from the peak of the company a great slide was already happening them. This came from a probable mistake when in the late 1970’s the company decided they would henceforth just buy small liners. It was a great reversal from the previous mantra of the company that they will bring great liners, the prime examples of which were the highly regarded Sweet Faith and Sweet Home which were former luxury liners even in Europe. Also included in that was the Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany.

That bad decision came when the top liners of the company, the aforementioned Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home were already graying and if analyzed technically were already threatening to quit in a few years time (and they subsequently did). Coupled with that that the former cargo-passenger ship from Europe, the Sweet Bliss, the Sweet Life/Sweet Dream, the Sweet Lord/Sweet Land and the Sweet Love which buoyed the company early on and helped in their rise were also growing old as they were also built in the 1950’s like the Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home and ferries then were not known to exceed 30 years of life as the metallurgy and technology were still not the same as today when ferries normally exceed 40 years of service life here. Spare and surplus parts are easy to find today and CNC milling of parts are already common whereas that was not the case of 40 years ago. When that decision to just acquire small ferries was made the six liners of Sweet Lines from Europe were already approaching 30 years old save for the Sweet Home (but then this luxury liner, the biggest of her time was actually the first to go because of mechanical problems).

The year 1980 came and one of the biggest crisis in local liner shipping came. This happened when a lot of liners were suddenly laid up because the container ships came into full force all at once and suddenly the old passenger-cargo liners no longer had enough cargo to carry and it was actually cargo which is decisive in the profitability of a passenger-cargo ship. Before the arrival of the container ships of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Central Shipping Corporation (the cargo shipping company of Sweet Lines), Sea Transport Company, Negros Navigation Company and Solid Shipping Lines, it was practically just the passenger-cargo liners which were carrying the cargo in liner routes.

Sweet Home was gone in 1979, sold, and Sweet Faith was also gone the next year in 1980, first laid up then sold to the breakers. The new decade came and Sweet Lines had no ship good enough for the premier Manila-Cebu route which they used to dominate albeit with just a small pull only early in the 1970’s but largely gone as the decade was winding down. What they had left to serve as flagship was the cruiser liner Sweet Grace which was ordered brand-new from West Germany in 1968 but which does not have the speed and the size of the now-dominant fast cruiser liners of that era already.

While Sweet Lines was saddled with such problem William Lines rolled out the half-cruiser, half-RORO Dona Virginia in December 1979 which was the biggest liner in the country when she was fielded and with a speed of 20 knots too like the liner she was replacing, the storied Cebu City which came brand-new just in 1972. Then Sulpicio Lines rolled out the Philippine Princess in 1981 and this liner was nearly as big as the Dona Virginia but not as fast. Sweet Grace was far smaller than the two unlike the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima which was nearly as big as Dona Virginia and Philippine Princess although not as fast as the two. Sweet Grace was also much slower than the three, she cannot even be considered as a fast cruiser liner and so for the first time since Sweet Lines raised the bar in the Manila-Cebu premier route in 1970 with the Sweet Faith, this time it found itself as the laggard and outmatched. And that was where the decision to just buy small liners bit Sweet Lines hard.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Having money from the proceeds of the disposals of Sweet Home and Sweet Faith, Sweet Lines was obliged to look for their replacement and it is forced that it should be a good and a big one. They did not disappoint when the former Ferry Ruby of the Diamond Ferry which plies the Osaka to Oichi route came to them in 1982 (but the seller was a third by the name of Dimerco Line SA of Panama and more on that later). The ship was nearly as big as her main competitors at 117.5 meters length and 4,700 gross register tons and at 18 knots design speed she was not giving away much to her direct competition, the flagships of the other liner companies although she was still the slowest at full trot among the flagships. And so what Sweet Lines emphasized was her being a RORO liner and its swiftness in cargo loading and unloading. However, the claim of Sweet Lines that she was the first RORO liner in the country is incorrect as the Sta. Maria of Negros Navigation Company came earlier in 1980. She, however, was the first big RORO liner in the country if the Dona Virginia is excluded.

When analyzed technically, the Sweet RORO is a leapfrog in technology compared to her main competitors which were mainly cruiser liners, the old paradigm. She was already a full-pledged ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ship unlike the Dona Virginia whereas the Philippine Princess and the Filipinas of Compania Maritima were still cruiser ships . Now these four are all flagships and only four shipping companies were competing seriously in the prime Manila-Cebu route as the others like Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines were no longer in serious contention in that route and the others have practically withdrawn from contention there like Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (but this company later made a comeback in that route). By the way, Negros Navigation Company is not being mentioned here as she was not doing the Manila-Cebu route then.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

But Sweet RORO might have been too much ahead of her time. Loading vehicles was not yet the wont then in her route (and neither now except for brand-new cars headed for car dealers down south). Container vans were mainly carried by the container ships and at that time there were still a lot of XEUs, the 10-foot container vans which can be handled by forklifts or loaded atop the cruisers at their bow and/or stern. Using chassis for container vans was not yet the standard then and so the full advantage of being a RORO or Roll-on, Roll-off ship was not fully realized when a lot of cargo was still palletized or are still carried loose (however, Sweet RORO had advantage over the others in carrying vehicles and heavy equipment down South). It would be nearly a decade later when the TEUs, the 20-foot container vans will be the new standard in cargo loading and by that time the Sweet RORO was already gone.

The Sweet RORO, the former Ferry Ruby was built by Onomichi Dockyard (Onomichi Zosen) in Onomichi, Japan in 1970 (but Sweet Lines says she was built in another yard) as one of the fast overnight ferries of Japan that bypasses their clogged highways then. She was average in size then (but this is not to disparage her) at 117.5 meters in Length Over-all, 107.0 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars, 20.6 meters in Breadth and 4,619 tons in Gross Register Tonnage. She was 1,943 tons in Net Register Tonnage and 1,477 tons in Deadweight Tonnage. This RORO liner was powered by 4 Kawasaki-MAN V8V 22/30ATL diesel engines with a combined 8,080hp which gave her a top speed of 18 knots which was also average for her size during her time. At that power she would have been more economical in fuel than the other flagships.

The stem of the ship was raked and she had transom stern. She was equipped with ramps bow and aft as access to the car deck. The ship has three decks for the passengers, the uppermost one a local addition (and that deck contained a lobby/relaxation room, the First Class bar and disco plus a game room) and abaft of the funnels is a wide open-air promenade area/sun deck. Aside from First Class and Second Class, a part of her Third Class (now known as “Economy”) is also airconditioned. This is because as-built the ship was fully air-conditioned. Her original passenger capacity as refitted was 1,692, one of the highest then among passenger ships in the country. It was broken down into 148 in 1st Class, 144 in 2nd Class, 400 in air-conditioned 3rd Class and 1,000 in non-airconditioned 3rd Class. The 3rd Class occupied the lowermost passenger deck while the First Class and Second Class accommodations and lobbies were on the deck above that and so it is the middle deck.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Like the Sweet Faith before her, the Sweet RORO plied the premier Manila-Cebu route twice a week with a 22-hour sailing time which means a cruising speed of 18 knots for the 393-nautical mile route which is actually her design speed. It seems the policy of Sweet Lines is sail the ship at design speed because that is what they also did with the Sweet Faith. However, running a ship at 100% usually entails a ship’s not living very long. In 1988, Sweet RORO already had trouble with her engines specifically with her crankshaft as one report said and from that time on she already had difficulty sailing and if she did it is at reduced speed. The next year she was already laid up when she was less than 20 years of age. In 1990, she was sent to India for breaking up, a very short career when her two sister ships was still sailing in Greece up to the new millennium.

In 1987, Sweet RORO had a change of ownership but she was still sailing for Sweet Lines even then. She again became a Panamanian ship with the Dimerco Line SA which was the seller of her to Sweet Lines and to me that indicates a possibility that she was not fully paid for by Sweet Lines and so the seller re-acquired her. This was also about the same time that the Eduardo Lopingco group entered Sweet Lines and took over the management. With the entry of Lopingco additional ships came to the fleet but it turned out those were just chartered from the Hayashi Marine Company of Japan . Later, court cases arose after the company was not able to pay the charter to Hayashi Marine because court records show money was diverted by Lopingco to other ventures.

I wonder but I know financial troubles and mismanagement are ship killers especially when the needed maintenance of the ship are no longer made. And running ships at 100% power is parts-hungry and can result in damages to the engine in the long term especially when maintenance is not up to date. A report said that re-engining her was suggested to the company but nothing came out of it. This was already the time that the company was already headed on the way down after it seems that the founding Lim family has already lost control of the company if court filings are to be believed.

Whatever, the Sweet RORO was a big success in the Manila-Cebu route as actually Sweet Lines was a favorite of many especially the Bol-anons that until today many still remember her fondly (people are more attached then to their great liners unlike today that is why there were ship legends then including the Sweet RORO while now there is no such sentimentality anymore). However, it puzzles me why didn’t they extend the route to Tagbilaran given it was their origins and the ship had a long lay-over anyway in Cebu (was Tagbilaran port too shallow for her then?).

She was a fine ship ahead of her time. However, the sad part is she did not last long.

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My Bohol Tour

When I went to Cebu last time I resolved I will also go to Bohol and do a tour, a real tour which means going around and not just going to some tourist spot (which I don’t do as I have no taste for that as I am old school in that I really want to go around). It was not just for ship spotting but also for buses as I needed to replenish my stock of Bohol bus photos which was already depleted. And for another reason, I wanted to see Bohol again after two years to update myself, see how its recovery from its earthquake went.

My planned entry was via Tubigon on an early morning trip on the cheap Lite Ferries ship as that is a good platform for ship spotting and spacious too (for ship spotting I don’t have a taste for High Speed Crafts as the view it affords is limited). However, on the morning I was due to depart the queue was long (wished I purchased the ticket the day before but their ticketing office outside Pier 1 always had a line). They also had no separate window for senior citizens and for the disabled (is that a violation of any law?). When I was already nearing the window the guard announced the closing of the ticketing since we wouldn’t make the 7am departure of the ferry. And that is one bad effect of the “cattle herding” of the Cebu Port Authority (and by PPA for that are ISPS) forcing passengers to use the passenger terminal and the X-ray machines when in earlier days one goes direct to the ship especially when time is running out (and just be ticketed aboard the ship). The guard announced they have a 12:30pm departure but I wonder who is the crazy passenger that will wait for that when it is just 7am.

I mulled my alternatives. It was not to be Star Crafts on the opposite side of the road. A fastcraft with its low windows dirtied by sea water splash is never good for ship spotting and one can’t anticipate a ship coming by. If it has an open-air accommodation it isn’t as comfortable as that missed Lite Ferry and besides it will be noisy. Wanting to make up for lost time since I will still be touring I decided on the FastCat in Pier 3 although I know it will cost more and I have to walk the distance.

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And that is where my bad experience with FastCat began. There was a line of apprentices in the ticket window and they said there was no more ticket for Premium Economy (which is the Tourist class) and Economy which is the open-air accommodation at the upper deck. And so I took the Business Class since there are no other ship alternatives left that leaves in the early morning for Tubigon.

I will then get ahead of the story. When the vessel departed I found out and so did other passengers forced to take the Business Class that there were still a lot of vacant seats in Economy and Premium Economy. We then knew we were scammed. I then asked one of the personnel attending to the passengers and the flippant reply was they know nothing about the booking. Huh! Is that all? I thought they had better training now but this is straight from the book of the old-style ferries whose favorite trick is handwashing. I told her straight into her face that it was scamming and bad for them since Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their company is beginning to make inroads in covering its unsavory reputation from its bad Maharlika ships of the recent past.

Then a second incident happened which made us Business Class passengers feel scammed again – there was no free snacks. Actually, the seats and accommodation of the premium Economy and the Business Class are the same. The former even have the advantage that its farther seats are by twos only and the canteen is located right there. Plus its air conditioning is stronger because the Business Class front is a door to the storage room covered with only a curtain and cold air is lost there.

I asked a steward why there is no free snacks when it is the only feature that can justify the higher fare when Business Class which is not superior in any way to Premium Economy (what a way to degrade the name of the Tourist class!). He said they have long ago requisitioned for supplies but it seemed management thinks passenger ridership to Tubigon is like the Bulalacao-Caticlan route (aha! so that route is weak in passengers?).

I told the steward that in this age of the internet and smartphone that excuse will not fly. So what is the use of computers and unlimited calls over the smartphone? So they cannot monitor? And management needs months to adjust? I told him that was a very lousy excuse and if that is true then that reflects badly on management. Maybe the owner Christopher Pastrana and his wife should better attend to things like these rather than bragging too much in media and in their own video. I told the steward that it seems FastCat is already sliding to their lowly Maharlika standard and everybody knows how lousy their Maharlika ships were (well, except for Archipelago Philippine Ferries employees which seem to have convenient amnesia).

I got many ship pics alright since a route from Pier 3 is better than a route to the south compared to from Pier 1 since up to Pier 4 can be covered well unlike in the Lite Ferry originating in Pier 1 that can only cover the Cokaliong ships. Then in the Talisay anchorage I was able to capture more ships. And there I took a rest and did not gamble anymore on chance encounters as I have a long day ahead. However, I was lucky to notice the coming Anika Gayle 2 of Aleson Shipping and I also caught her on cam.

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The promised one-and-a-half hour cruising time of FastCat M11 did not materialize. Our trip lasted nearly two hours and to make it worse we left Cebu late because they had difficulty in loading an empty truck because FastCat can’t ballast (so much for their ads that the ship does not have ballast water). Since the tide was high the underside of the truck was scraping the port. So I did not gain any time by riding FastCat. It seems they are saving on fuel and was no longer running at 100% speed (is this the start of their run that will just manage to outspeed a little their competitor Lite Ferries?)

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In Tubigon port there was already the missed Lite Ferry and Star Crafts 6 when we arrived. I did not linger long in port and immediately took a pedicab (it is better than a cramped tricycle albeit slower of course). I then took a nearly empty commuter van bound for Talibon (well, I was glad the driver was true to his announced ETD and did not regret taking the van) and I got off in Inabanga and made a short tour of it. I found out everything was completely normal as if no fighting occurred within its territory. There was no suspicious looks nor questions and I was surprised by that (good its people are not “praning” and its officials not over-reactive unlike in Cebu South Bus Terminal which is under the Provincial Capitol). And so I thought the heightened security I saw in other parts of the country are just “arte” or overreaction including the Capitol of Cebu which has barriers and questioning guards already (but go by its back entrance and anybody can enter without question). And to think Cebu City has no serious incidents yet. I wonder what will be their reaction when they have one (but I know Mayor Tommy Osmena is not “praning” as one can easily access the 8th floor of his City Hall where his office is located, take photos of ships from there and not once was I questioned what I was doing).

From Inabanga I then took a commuter van to Tagbilaran and upon reaching Tubigon we were transferred to another van that is already more full. I welcomed it rather than waiting for passengers and losing more time. I was right in the choice of the ride as the van proved faster because we were overtaking buses. Of course I was enjoying the views that were always changing. Much better than being cocooned in some beach resort that is not free anyway.

I then made a fast check of the Dao integrated terminal of Tagbilaran while taking quick shots of buses. I asked the ride to Loboc and they pointed to me the converted Canter (into a jeep equivalent) parked by the market just outside the terminal. While waiting for it to depart (it was nearly full already) I asked permission to take more shots of buses and I darted inside the terminal.

When I returned after ten minutes as I promised I found out that they positioned three short benches in the middle of the Canter (and so I understood why it was wider) for eight more passengers. I counted the capacity. 35 sitting passengers not including five others clinging at the rear or “sabit”. I thought not a bad replacement for a minibus. And I have to thank the lady student who exchanged her better seat than my uncomfortable one.

The route of the Canter was Tagbilaran-Sikatuna-Loboc, a different route from the Loay route which me and Vinz Sanchez (a PSSS Moderator from Bohol) took when he toured me the whole coastal roads of Bohol a few years ago, a favor I still cherish. Sikatuna is a town by the hills of Bohol and so what we passed looked like a mountain road. I was glad I saw different vistas. It seemed to me the people, my co-passengers, were friendlier too. It rained very hard however after Sikatuna town until we reached Loboc. The fare looked cheap to me. P25 for what seems to be 29 kilometers (and so when did the LTFRB which only listens to big operators but not the people learned how to set correct fares?).

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The Loboc tour boats

My tour and shots of Loboc were forgettable. The rain did not abate and there was no banca ride to Loay (they say I should have taken it by the Loay bridge which I visited before with Vinz). With such rain I was not interested to take the boat tour upriver with its native banquet food (I did not go to Loboc to partake food).

I went to the town where a I found a nice eatery, the biggest in the town where there was a wide selection. I found out that the food prices were very moderate and the owner friendly. I was tempted to enter it because I saw foreigners eating there (and so I thought there must be a reason for that). It was there when the rain subsided a little. Over-all it was a lousy tour of Loboc but I saw the restoration work of their church that was heavily damaged by the quake was already underway. In Loboc nearly a lot of the tourists were foreigners.

A commuter van arrived and enticed me again. I took it to Tagbilaran. I did not try to go anymore to Carmen, the site of the Chocolate Hills because I do not want to be disappointed again by the rain and there might not be enough time already (but a motorcycle driver was offering me a private ride). I thought maybe it was not my day. And it was there that I realized my mistake. From Inabanga I should have gone straight to Carmen via Sagbayan. It happened I was not that sure though how fast the ride there will be and it also happened Chocolate Hills was not on the top of my priority being just a simple tourist spot to me (in Loboc at least there are bancas).

With an early arrival back in Tagbilaran I had time to take more photos of buses in the terminal. I noticed that compared to two years ago the remaining rivals of the dominant Southern Star bus have essentially re-fleeted and some have air-conditioned units already. I thought that was good and it seems they will not be simply swept away or gobbled by the giant yellow bus company like what I feared before.

I next made a round of the Island City Mall which is conveniently near the Dao terminal. I planned to take dinner there before I proceed to Tagbilaran port to take the 10pm Lite Ferry ship back to Cebu. In the said mall there was a trade fair in the upper floor and that for me somehow made up the failure in Loboc as I enjoy seeing the displayed products of so many places as it gives me a glimpse of what their place is (and later google the Net for more information about them). I also took note of the places where the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) group made tambay when we attended the wedding of Vinz Sanchez in Panglao.

I arrived in Tagbilaran port at 7:30pm only to found out there were no more tickets available in whatever class of the Lite Ferries ship (and it seems I have bad luck with this shipping company). I waited a little since a few years back our PSSS group that attended the Tagbilaran fiesta was able to still board as chance passengers and we were even five then, a relatively big group. But this time instead of being encouraging the Lite Ferries ticketing office suddenly closed. I was marooned as I was told the last trip of the bus to Tubigon was 8pm (there is still a midnight ferry there to Cebu and Mandaue). I suddenly remembered the fate of the PSSS group three years ago during Vinz’s wedding when they slept in Dao terminal.

I then pulled my way into Harborview Inn which has a commanding view of the port right outside the port gates and no more sleeping in the terminal as I was thinking of another day’s tour if I can’t go home. It was not cheap if going by its age. The greater negative was the noise and vibration of the trucks going in and out of the port. But the big plus is it has a view of the ships in Tagbilaran port. As an ISPS port there was no chance for me to go inside the port if I am not a passenger and Tagbilaran will no longer be my exit later in the day.

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The next morning, after taking shots of Tagbilaran port I walked to the mall near the old bus terminal and partook breakfast there. It was near the place where we took a taxi to Loon when Aris Refugio, a PSSS Moderator will be having a short vacation in Sandingan island in her sister’s place (it was a nice place with a commanding view of the sea). I was able to take photos of the buses inside that minor terminal now and then I made my way back to Dao, the main terminal. There was a cheaper multicab that I found and I an-seminarian as co-passenger who was engaging and helpful.

Upon reaching the terminal another van called offering a cheap fare to Tubigon and a promise of an immediate departure (am I that a magnet for commuter vans in Bohol?). But I declined as I said I needed to take bus photos first for my collection and I was not yet on that direction I actually wanted to stay first in the terminal, get a feel of the possibilities and mull my options (yes, I tend to feel my guts when I am on a trip in a not-so-familiar place and my plans did not fall into place). What I just wanted was a bus going to northern Bohol because the ferries back to Cebu are there. I noticed a bus going to Talibon passing through Carmen (and I know the Chocolate Hills are located over there). I can’t resist riding that bus even though I haven’t finalized yet where my exit will be (now isn’t that touring in the finest sense?). But the bus will pass by Dagohoy town and that to me was another bonus.

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Baclayon port and lighthouse

The route was by Baclayon and Loay this time and I was able to get shots of their ports). It was the seaside route and after a junction Loboc came into view again. I was not tempted to get off as I know a route to Talibon will take long knowing how slow are the buses in Bohol (nope, they will never need a GPS-based warning device telling them they are already over the speed limit as buses there don’t run over 60kph anyway). And the bus driver quoted 4 hours of travel time but I always assume that is an optimistic estimate.

I was fascinated by the views and landscape right after Loboc. The scenery looks like a forest from there up to Bilar and Batuan, two places I have special interest in. It was an ascending road to the hills of Bohol up to its plateau. Comparing later to Chocolate Hills that world-famous tourist site looked unexciting to me. Just the site of mint-chocolate mounds although admittedly I did not get off then junction leading to its viewing point where there are habal-habals (chartered motorcyle rides) waiting. Later, I realized I could have gotten off there and just take the night ship back to Cebu (and that is the consequence of trip out of plan already). And not having a map or a pocket Wi-Fi also took its toll. But then I was generally tired too (my batteries are not that fast to recharge anymore) and I had wounds to take care of.

The cruising speed of the Southern Star bus was just 50kph even though it is an aircon bus (well, it was good for sightseeing). The passenger load was not high including that of the other buses I saw and to think buses in Bohol does not come one after another. I was even wondering if there were more ship passengers than bus passengers in Bohol (well, the commuter take a big chunk off their load). But at least I found out in Bohol that buses do not have many meal stops like in Cebu and Mindanao.

I was tempted to get off the bus in Trinidad town and head east to Ubay and take the night ship there. I found out that the J&N Ferry ship there to Cebu is very cheap compared to the Tagbilaran ship when the distance of Cebu from Ubay is about the same (now how did that happen?). Now I understand part of the reason why they are still existing. If one is going to Jagna from Cebu to take a ferry there the proper connection is the J&N Ferry to Ubay and not the ferry to Tagbilaran but it seems few realize that. Jagna is roughly equidistant from Ubay and Tagbilaran.

In Talibon I was able to take long-distance shots of the port. I did not go into the port and just felt the atmosphere of the bus terminal and the market (because I was already worrying about the time). I was divided into going to Tubigon (which will afford me daylight ship spotting) or going back to Ubay in order to extend my Bohol tour and visit Ubay again. But I did not have time to mull as the Tubigon bus was already honking. I was just intent on catching the 4:30pm Anika Gayle 2 ferry to Cebu which has a much better ship spotting view than the Star Crafts (there were no Lite Ferries ships in the late afternoon in Tubigon and I do not want to ride the FastCat again).

I asked the driver how long the ride to Tubigon will take. He answered one hour. But then our driver turned out he can just ride his mount at 50kph and so we took nearly 2 hours for the route. We passed by Inabanga again.

But with our slow speed I missed the Anika Gayle 2 and there was a long line in Star Crafts. But I was fortunate the guard pulled me to the senior citizens’ window and I was able to get a ticket leapfrogging over a dozen people. Otherwise I would have experienced shut-out again and I would be forced to take the FastCat (horrors!). This time the vessel was fully booked and I was in the very last row of seat near the toilet.

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It then happened that I was also very interested in our vessel the Star Crafts 7 (good she was on that schedule) and I already forgot my disappointment in not having made the Anika Gayle 2. The reason is because Star Crafts 7 was the former MS Express of A. Sakaluran in Zamboanga which I have already visited before in Varadero de Recodo, a shipyard in Zamboanga City. I want to see what changed and I want to feel her again.

One big change I noticed is she was already much less comfortable (and much less than Starcrafts 1). Instead of trying to put in some comfort like in Weesam Express now as Star Crafts she is just trying to pack as much people in. I have not seen seats as narrow and uncomfortable in a fastcraft. Fastcrafts are generally more cramped compared to catamarans but I have been to Weesam Express, A. Sakaluran, Oceanjet and the Montenegro Shipping Lines fastcrafts including its small ones and Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs) like the Anika Gayles of Aleson Shipping but all have sufficient level of comfort and space unlike the Star Crafts 7. And another, the good air-conditioning central vents of the MS Express were already gone in Star Crafts 7.

With its fare almost level with FastCat I wonder why Boholanos still patronize them when the like of FastCat is much more superior in terms of accommodations and passenger service (no, this is not a plug for FastCat). The seats of Star Crafts is even narrower and less comfortable than bus seats. With a 4+4 seating, maybe its fares should be much less. Is it time for FastCat to field a second MSC in Tubigon? Or Oceanjet should field one of their fastcrafts? But maybe the franchises of the Lite Jets were not sold to them to preclude competition with them.

The Star Crafts 7 is a full two-deck fastcraft now when it had only one-and-a-half passenger decks as MS Express. We took just over 1 hour for the voyage so that means we were cruising at about 20 knots. Its engines are Yuchai diesels now with a total of 1,850 horsepower, down from her former 3,100-horsepower Mitsubishi diesels, the same powerplant as her rival Sea Jet of Aleson Shipping which is not on the route now and replaced by the Anika Gayle 2 which we overtook before reaching the reef shallows south of Mactan island.

There was no ship spotting whatsoever when I was on board Star Crafts 7. No possibility as there was no open-air accommodation and the doors of fastcrafts are closed when sailing. I was only able to take some shots upon alighting in Cebu Pier 3 but it was already getting dark. Before I disembarked I tried to tour the fastcraft but it was too dour and there is no access to the bridge. I am imagining though that it might not have changed much since I visited her as MS Express.

It was a full two-day visit of Bohol. Nice but tiring too (and I had an accident but that is another thing).

When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

Superferry 1

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation has always been notable for two particular quirks. The first is when they bought a lot of old ex-FS ships in the mid-1960’s from other shipping companies when others were already sourcing ships from Europe and Japan and some are even brand-new. The second is when they did not buy any ferry for 14 straight years from 1974 to 1988 and when they bought one it was another old hand-me-down from Escano Lines, the former “Katipunan”. However, in the same period Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (ASC) bought a lot of cargo ships and they were among the first to containerize. Actually, in the 1980’s ASC was one of the container majors in the local seas through the Aboitiz Concarriers together with the Wilcons of William Lines, the Sulcons of Sulpicio Lines and the Lorcons of Lorenzo Shipping.

With a ferry fleet whose backbone were still the old ex-FS ships Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not try to compete in the major ferry routes in the 1980’s and instead concentrated on minor routes like routes to northern Panay and Leyte island. However, this laidback attitude on ferry operations all changed when in 1989 when they bought the “Venus” from Japan to become the “SuperFerry 1”. I am not sure if this was part of the Jebsens influence on Aboitiz Shipping but it looks like it. Jebsens of Norway was a partner of Aboitiz in local shipping and they created a company named Aboitiz Jebsens which was in ship maintenance and management.

SuperFerry 1 ©Gorio Belen

“Venus”, a ROPAX (RORO-Passenger ship) with IMO Number 7375856 was built by Shikoku Dockyard in Takamatsu, Japan. She measured 132.4 meters by 20.6 meters and she had an original Gross Tonnage (GT) of 4,006 nominal tons and Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 3,194 tons. In Net Tonnage (NT), she measured 1,630 nominal tons with a passenger capacity of 302 and her RORO capacity was 1,030 lane-meters. “Venus” was originally by powered by twin SEMT-Pielsticks which developed a combined 16,700 horsepower giving her a service speed of 20.5 knots. She already had the then-new and modern bulbous stem which gave extra speed. She was completed on December of 1975 and she was then delivered to Arimura Sangyo shipping line of Naha, Okinawa, Japan.

In 1989 Aboitiz Shipping Corporation bought the “Venus” and brought her to the Philippines where she was rebuilt. New decks were added and it now totaled four and additional passenger accommodations were built. Her new Gross Tonnage (GT) was 9,184 nominal tons and her new Net Tonnage (NT) was 2,987 with a passenger capacity of 1,808. Her new Depth was 13.0 meters. Her new name was “Aboitiz SuperFerry 1” and she was the new flagship of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation. “Aboitiz SuperFerry 1” was the first RORO-Passenger (ROPAX) ship of the company.

SuperFerry 1 Brochure ©Mike Baylon

She was launched with fanfare and advertisements were rolled out. They touted the new kind of service and accommodations and pointed out the word “Super” pertained to these and not to the size as she cannot beat the “Filipina Princess” of Sulpicio Lines in that aspect. Indeed, it seems that for the first time a liner sailing in local seas had service crew that were graduates of Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) courses and not green mariners trying to serve customers. There was always the smile, the snappiness, the ever-presence and the constant cleaning and mopping. With HRM background they knew how not to say “No” and how not to disappoint passengers. Meals were not free but there is a full-service cafeteria which looked like an office cafeteria that was open till past midnight. The equipment and cleanliness of the toilets and baths were unmatched in the business.

However, in less than a year of sailing, bad luck hit “SuperFerry 1” when she was struck by engine room fire. She was towed to Singapore for repairs where she was fitted with new engines, too. Brand-new Wartsila diesel engines were used which developed a total of 21,200 horsepower. Although heavier now, she was able to regain her old service speed of 20.5 knots with the new more powerful engines. At that speed she was clearly now the second-best to the much more powerful “Filipina Princess”. She was re-launched in 1991 to fanfare and advertisements again.

SperFerry1 Main Engine ©Ralpha Russel Rosauro

With her, Aboitiz Shipping was able to reclaim their old Davao route which before already lain beyond their old cruisers (“SuperFerry” 1 was the first RORO of the company) because of the long distance and the lack of speed which made them the laughing stock of the fast cruisers of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines like the “Davao Princess” and the “Manila City”. With “SuperFerry 1” Aboitiz Shipping and Aboitiz Jebsens pioneered the system of sailing where in-port hours were low and the ship just sails and sails. This was needed because Aboitiz Shipping lacks liners. Promptness was paramount and to shorten loading and unloading time two ramps were used simultaneously and containers that must be handled were radioed to the tractors which was setting records in speed of hauling. In comparison, the rival flagships “Filipina Princess” and “Sugbu” of William Lines were still using the slow booms together with ramps.

The route of SuperFerry 1 was Manila-Iloilo-General Santos City-Davao and Manila-Iloilo. She was the fastest ferry to General Santos City and Davao, bar none. Her intermediate port stops consisted only of two to three hours and she was known for promptness in departures. Once a passenger ramp was lifted it’s already sorry to any passengers even though they are running with all their might towards the ship. Being the newest, fastest and the best passenger service she displaced patronage from rivals in the route and name “SuperFerry” and its brand of service was already being installed in the minds of the riding public of ships.

SuperFerry 1 ©Britz Salih

In the merger of William Lines, Gothong Shipping Corporation and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that created the new company WG&A she retained her name and her route. Later, “SuperFerry 8”, the former “Mabuhay 3” and “Sugbu” was paired with her in the route. She held on to this route even when the Chiongbian and Gothong families already withdrew from the merged company and her company was renamed the Aboitiz Transport Shipping (ATS). By this time her service speed was already down to 19 knots.

SuperFerry 1 ©Aris Refugio

With the arrival of “SuperFerry 20” and “SuperFerry 21” she was displaced from the Davao route. She was also starting to fall from disfavor as the new style of ATS called for ROPAXes of twin cargo decks and less passenger capacity and amenities, the reason they converted three ferries into this standard. “SuperFerry 1” also has a big engine relative to her cargo capacity which was their primary measurement. Not long after ATS advertised her for sale but there were no local takers as other liner companies do not buy hand-me-downs from rivals and she was too big and her engine too powerful for the Visayas-Mindanao shipping companies. And so she just toiled in minor routes.

Not long after, the merger of Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Transport System happened and she came under 2GO. Doing the Tagbilaran and Dumaguete route she grounded entering Tagbilaran Bay when the new master from Negros Navigation took a shortcut on the reefs. A SuperCat came to the rescue of her passengers and she was later freed. From this accident she sailed almost no more and soon she was just a “floating monument” in Manila Bay. She was, however, renamed the “Sta. Rita de Cascia”.

SuperCat rescue operations ©Vince Sanchez

More photos of the operation can be found by clicking here.

Last year, in 2014, she disappeared from Manila Bay. Later, she reappeared in Indonesia as the “Mutiara Persada 1”. Ship spotters heaved a sigh of relief because Indonesia, like the Philippines, is known for appreciating and taking care of older ships. So for now, it looks like “SuperFerry 1” has escaped the breaker’s torches.