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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Time Will Come The LCTs Will Take Away The Business Of The Container Ships

It was a friend of mine who worked as trusted man of someone high up in shipping who told me that MARINA has set it just to 30 or 35% load for a container ship to be profitable. I was aghast by that because that will mean terrible inefficiency and high rates for the shippers. That was twenty years ago and in that same time span our local shipping industry has been under attack for very high rates and it has been pointed out that from Davao it is much cheaper to send a container van to Hongkong or Singapore which are much farther than Manila. But even after two decades there has been no change in the situation of the industry. If there was, it is the rates went up geometrically higher. And of course that was unacceptable but our bureaucrazy only acts to change things if there is already an imminent revolt.

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Intermodal trucks for loading in BALWHARTECO Port in Allen, Samar

As they say water seeks its own path and one cannot hold or bottle it forever. One big response by shippers that I saw was in the widespread deployment of intermodal trucks that use our highways and then boards short-distance ROROs at the end of the road and then continue on to the next island. The intermodal truck might then still board another short-distance RORO to another island. I found out there are even trucks whose origin is Mactan island which are bound to Manila and will traverse Cebu island, Negros island, Panay island and Mindoro island before landing in Batangas port. And of course intermodal trucks from Manila or CALABARZON find its way to Davao regularly and there are some that reach as far as Zamboanga.

Consolidation” of the local cargo shipping industry especially the container sector has long been proposed by experts both local and foreign. But it has fallen into deaf ears and the national government will not wield the proverbial stick to make this come true and so it lays until now where it started, that is as proposals. “Consolidation” would have led to greater efficiency and thus lower rates. But locally, businesses and not only shipping wants to see efficiency not to lower rates (of course, they will pay lip service to that) but to higher profits. And so greed rules and trumps everything and the higher national interest and greater good do not matter in the end.

Our different shipping companies are republics of their own and historically they have never been into cooperation, consolidation or merger (except the “Great Merger” which produced WG&A and which had been a disaster to local shipping) even though some are related by blood. If there has been a CISO (Conference of Inter-island Ship Owners) in the past, it is only because they want to present a common front vis-a-vis the government and also to make sure that the agreed rates are being observed by all (however, in other countries that will ruled as “cartelization” and subject to penalties or even jail terms; but not here as that term is practically unknown and even Economics teachers here do not know that). Oh, well, actually the cartel master locally is MARINA which sets the rates. Historically, they set the maximum rates but like what happened to LTFRB they treat the maximum rate as also the minimum and MARINA in the end serves just the needs of the shipping companies and not the general public. But before it be misconstrued that they are servile to shipping companies, the truth is shipping companies fear MARINA as their livelihood and fortune is dependent on the decisions of MARINA. If the rates are drastically brought down then they might all go down.

That is the reason why the shipping companies will fight toe and nail for the retention of the Anti-Cabotage Law which bars foreign shipping companies from sailing local or inter-island routes. If the Congress (which has the power to repeal the Anti-Cabotage Law) allows the entry of the much more efficient and capable foreign ships then local cargo rates will drastically go down but our local shipping companies will drown. Regarding the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), that entity will not amount to anything in shipping because that only checks mergers and mergers are a near-impossibility in shipping.

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LCT Raenell of Asian Shipping Corporation in Mandaue

And so shippers and other related interests will find new ways to bring down rates some other way. One of these is the employment of the cheap and cheap-to-operate LCTs which has only 1,000 horsepower on the average which is just about a third of the power of the container ships. True, they will probably only run at about 7 to 8 knots compared to the 11 to 12 knots of the container ships. So they will take three days to Cebu where a container van will only take two days. But, hey, the bulk of cargo is not express anyway and a difference of one day will not really matter, in the main. Nowadays if one really wants it fast one takes to the plane and use air cargo which is P20/kilo at the lowest now.

It is through the use of chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation that Ocean Transport had their start. Using big LCTs (by local standards), 94 TEUs can be fitted with the container vans stacked like Lego and handled by big forklifts. The LCTs cost P70,000 a day, fuel and crew included and so the transport cost one way is just over P200,000 not including cargo handling in Manila and possible cargo handling in Cebu. Plus of course other labor, office, yard and anciliary costs and maybe insurance. Under the table money, I have only the vaguest of ideas. But in this calculation one can see the movement of a TEU to Cebu via chartered LCTs is just P4,000, starting. That will not be the actual rate but one can see how low it is via LCT when the normal commercial rate for a TEU to Cebu is probably 5 times of that. The LCT might have just a capacity of 94 TEUs and the container van has 300 TEU but if they are only a third full on the average then the actual load of the two is just about equal and the LCT has probably only has a third of the horsepower of the container ship. The LCT usually has about 100% load. So it is very easy to see which is more efficient and why an LCT can give much, much cheaper rates.

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Roble Shipping was the next to follow the shipping model of Ocean Transport and like the first they were also very quiet about it. Maybe the two fear that if it becomes known widespread that the LCT mode is successful some shipping companies will lobby MARINA and MARINA will institute a crackdown and maybe cite “safety” again which is the usual bogey of MARINA. It has been a long time that the LCTs, being flat-bottomed and not that resilient against capsizing has been tagged with safety issues. It does not help either that being open-decked and having a low freeboard some issues were also attached by some to those. [Note: Ocean Transport and Roble Shipping now operates their own LCTs regularly carrying container vans from Manila to Cebu.]

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LCT Akira of Ocean Transport by John Carlos Cabanillas

The longest route I have seen LCTs bring container vans regularly is from Manila to Cagayan de Oro. And so locally it is proven now that LCTs can be container carriers for 500 nautical miles. I do not know if they are capable of Southern Mindanao routes which is up to 800 nautical miles but I think they can do it if needed. Of course, LCTs are normally earlier to seek shelter than container ships when there are storms. But if MARINA and the Coast Guard suspends voyages at 45kph wind speed then the container ships might not have an advantage anymore.

The LCTs are looked down upon by many but they should know that China which is already the biggest shipbuilding country in the world and is already a shipping power widely uses LCTs to move their cargo internally and on shorter distances. Actually most of our new LCTs now are from China and many came here brand-new. In terms of age, our LCTs might be younger than our container ships now. And LCTs are the backbone of our Cargo RORO LCT fleet which not only move trucks but also trucks and trailers bearing container vans especially to islands that are not served well by container ships like Bohol, Leyte and Samar.

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LCT PMI-3 from Leyte

If MARINA won’t crack down, I see intermodal trucks and LCTs further taking away the business of the container ships which is still growing in number but I know their cargo volume is not increasing. Consolidation would have been easy for them if they will just open their eyes and be open-minded and it does not mean that they would have to merge, an anathema to many executives as that might mean losing their positions and careers that they have built over the years. Actually the simplest consolidation is the swapping of container vans. There is no container company that has daily departures even from Manila and the simplest is they should load their containers to their partner shipping companies which has the nearest departure. That will mean ships being fuller and at the end of the month they can reconcile their figures and charges would have to be paid for the difference but of course it should be on friendship or partner rates.

With that, less ships might have to be employed, there would be less sailings and that would have to mean savings that should be passed on to consumers if they have any integrity. With consolidation too there might be enough containers vans to ports and islands that they have already abandoned or bypassed and so the container ships can come back there and sailing level might be maintained (now isn’t that neat?). Internationally, this system I mentioned is already being used and not only in shipping. I don’t see any valid reason why the local shipping companies can’t do it. It will only be impossible if their distrust of each other is too much and their owners and executives are too obtuse. The national government should also wield the stick after incentives are laid out. They can even set the rules and the system. It is high time already as for the past two decades after constant criticisms I have not seen our local container companies try to bring down container rates to acceptable world standards. They are just being kept afloat by the blood of the shippers. And that is why forwarder companies are making great strides and container shipping is just where they were two decades before. That is also the true reason they won’t venture out to foreign waters because they simply cannot compete. Regarding their charge that our ports are too shallow that is baloney because much bigger foreign ships use the same major ports that they do.

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LCT Poseidon 15 in Verde Island Passage

I wish the LCTs well for maybe it is them that will be able to bring down container rates even though they might not look modern or beautiful. If they drown the container ships then it is the fault of the container shipping companies themselves.