Sweet Lines and the DFDS Connection

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Sweet Faith by Karsten Petersen

DFDS is the abbreviation of Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab A/S (literally “The United Shipping Company” because it is a merger of three shipping companies). It is a Danish shipping company which is the biggest in Northern Europe. Now that reminds me that Maersk (or A.P. Moller-Maersk Group), the biggest shipping company in the whole world is also Danish. It seems the Danish are low-key and not used to trumpeting their horns but they really know shipping. It also sets me thinking that the more heralded shipping Greeks might then just be overrated because of Onassis who was tops in self-promotion. DFDS is an old, highly regarded shipping line that was established in 1866 and that was exactly 150 years ago. The company is both into passenger and cargo shipping historically and now they even have subsidiaries.

Sweet Lines Incorporated is a Philippine shipping company which started as the the Central Shipping Company in Bohol and they only changed name in 1961. Later, to handle their cargo/container shipping, Sweet Lines resurrected that company in 1981 while continuing to use the company Sweet Lines for passenger liner shipping. Sweet Lines actually started before World War II, was interrupted by the war like all other shipping companies then and they continued again after the war using mainly former “F” ships from the US Navy. They were then just a regional shipping company but a dominant regional with routes linking Bohol, Siquijor, Cebu, Leyte and Northern Mindanao along with a few other ports of calls in other parts of Central Philippines.

In 1965, the liner company General Shipping Company quit local shipping and then went into the overseas routes. They sold their local fleet along with its franchises and half of those ended up with Sweet Lines. That provided the opening for a dominant regional player to become a player in the national liner shipping scene. Except for one local-built luxury liner which became the Sweet Rose, all other ships conveyed from General Shipping were former “FS” ships which were the backbone of the Philippine inter-island shipping fleet after the war but which was already getting long in the teeth twenty years hence.

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Photo credit: Manila Chronicle, National Library and Gorio Belen

In 1966, Sweet Lines bought the only liner of Royal Lines, the Princesa and renamed this to Sweet Peace. The next year, they bought the third Governor Wright from Southern Lines and renamed this into Sweet Sail. What is remarkable about these acquisitions is these two ships are better and faster than the former “FS” that was a war surplus of the USA. In 1967, Sweet Lines was sailing these two to Manila with the bigger Sweet Rose and the Sweet Ride, their only ex-”FS” ship in a liner route.

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Photo credit: Manila Chronicle, National Library and Gorio Belen

What Sweet Lines did was they actually handed down to their regional routes their three other ex-”FS” ships from General Shipping Company thus bolstering their regional routes. These were the former General del Pilar, General Trias and General Lim. Since General Shipping always interchanged the names of their ships they then better be identified also with their IMO Numbers to avoid confusion. The three had the IDs IMO 6117992, IMO 6118023 and IMO 6117937 initially. In a change of IDs they were later the IMO 5127762, IMO 5127889 and IMO 5127736, respectively. Under Sweet Lines, the three became the first Sweet Trip, the first Sweet Ride and the first Sweet Hope, respectively. Where before, Sweet Lines only had former “F” ships for the regional battles, now they had also the bigger and better ex-”FS” ships.

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Photo credit: Philippine Herald, National Library and Gorio Belen

This early as a liner company, Sweet Lines’ template was beginning to show – they were not content to simply match the competitors’ fleet and here I am talking of quality and not of numbers. Up to 1967, the liner fleets of most of their competitors still consisted of former “FS” ships and some were lengthened former “F” ships.

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Photo credit: The Philippines Herald, National Library and Gorio Belen

The next moves of Sweet Lines confirmed their model of building their fleet. Their next seven ship acquisitions from 1967 to 1973, for an average of a ship each year consisted of ships acquired from Europe. Five of these were from DFDS and among them was the great Sweet Faith. The two others were no less than the five. One was a brand-new liner built in West Germany, the Sweet Grace and the other was a luxury liner from Italy, the former Caralis, a luxury liner even in Italy which became the first Sweet Home and biggest liner of Sweet Lines until then and one of the few liners in the country then that was over 100 meters in length.

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Sweet Bliss by Karsten Petersen

Getting five passenger ships one after the other showed the DFDS connection of Sweet Lines. During this period the additional ship requirements of our liner fleets was being sourced from Europe as there were no more available war surplus ships from the USA and there was not yet a significant volume of surplus passenger ships from Japan. Among the local liner companies it was Go Thong & Co., Compania Maritima and William Lines along with the upstart Dacema Lines that were sourcing ships from Europe in significant number during this time.

Of the five ships from DFDS, the most prominent of course and which became the flagship of Sweet Lines in the 1970’s was the Sweet Faith. This ship was a luxury liner even in Europe and was fast. She just sailed the premier Manila-Cebu route and that was paradigm-changing because she started the era of fast cruisers in the postwar years and by just sticking to one particular route without an intermediate port of call. She also launched what was called the “flagship wars” when William Lines decided to match her with the Cebu City. Sulpicio Lines later joined this war with their Don Sulpicio which was the later infamous Dona Paz. Sweet Home also joined this “flagship wars” in 1973 as pair to Sweet Faith doing only the Manila-Cebu route and she was also a fast cruiser aside from being a luxury liner.

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Photo credit: Times Journal, National Library and Gorio Belen

The other four ships from DFDS were passenger-cargo ships in Europe that has a small passenger capacity and which has a cargo boom bisecting the passenger accommodation below the bridge and the scantling at the stern. All four were built by Helsingor Vaerft in Elsinore, Denmark like the Sweet Faith. The four were actually a pair of sister ships. They were also by no means small.

The first that came here were the sisters ships Elsinore, Denmark and Birkholm which arrived in 1967 and 1969, respectively. Here, the were renamed into the Sweet Bliss and the Sweet Life (this ship was later renamed into Sweet Dream). The Broager was actually the younger ship having been built in 1953 while the Birkholm was built in 1950. At 92 meters length, the two were already among the biggest liners in country then with a median speed but certainly a little faster than the war surplus types from the USA, the ex-”FS” ships, the ex-”Y” ships, the ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships and the Type N3 ships.

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The next batch that came were the Ficaria and the Primula and both came in 1972 and they were renamed into the Sweet Lord (later renamed into Sweet Land) and Sweet Love. The two were bigger than the Broager and Birkholm at 101 meters and they had a respectable speed of 14.5 knots when new. The Ficaria was built in 1951 while the Primula was built in 1952. Meanwhile, the Sweet Faith was built in 1950. So all these ships of Sweet Lines from DFDS were actually built in just one period.

By 1974, Sweet Lines was no longer using ex-”FS” ships in the liner routes as they already passed on all this type to their regional routes and to their cargo shipping division. These five ships from DFDS became the backbone of their fleet and reinforced by the Sweet Home (the luxury liner ex-Caralis from Italy), the Sweet Grace (the brand-new liner built in West Germany in 1968) and by the local-built liner Sweet Rose acquired from General Shipping.

This was the peak of the passenger fleet of Sweet Lines when even their respected rivals were still using a lot of war-surplus ships from the USA in their liner routes. At 84 meters the Sweet Rose was the smallest among the eight and that was remarkable. If the length of their liners are averaged Sweet Lines will beat all except the leading Compania Maritima and will about equal the relatively small liner fleet then of Negros Navigation. At this year Sweet Lines might have ranked 4th or 5th in fleet strength nationwide or even as high as 3rd if their regional and cargo shipping are considered. Compania Maritima was already weakening this time with a lot of sinking without new acquisitions, Go Thong & Co., had broken up in 1972 while Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and subsidiary Cebu-Bohol Ferry Company while numerous is simply loaded with old ex-”FS” ships. Actually the First Five or First Six in national shipping then were almost near equals, the first and only time I saw such near-parity.

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Photo credit: Times Journal, National Library and Gorio Belen

From such strength derived from an insistence on ship quality from the start as a national liner company and by ushering the era of fast cruisers in the postwar years and fighting well the “flagship wars,” I cannot, however. just sweep under the rug how Sweet Lines slipped from its exalted position. Imagine from being a newcomer in the national liner shipping scene in 1965 and reaching near-parity with the leading ones in just nine short years!

Maybe such expansion hit Sweet Lines more than the others when the “floating rate” of the peso (an automatic currency devaluation mechanism) especially after the “Oil Shock” of 1973 when trade balance and foreign currency shortage happened with the fast rise of petroleum products. For five years from 1973 until 1978 they did not acquire any liner. And that is in the situation that their European-sourced liners are already getting old (well, the war-surplus ships from the USA are even older).

While William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were quick to buy fast cruisers from Japan, a new ship source from the middle of the 1970’s, Sweet Lines got stuck up in those crisis years. A news item in the middle of that decade said that Sweet Lines will just concentrate on buying smaller ships and that turned out to be true because their next ship acquisitions turned out to be just in the 50-meter class which is marginal size for a liner. That size of ships they purchased in the late 1970’s were just the size of the ex-”FS” ships and with just the same speed, actually. If that was not regression, I don’t know what is.

Sweet Home

Well, that inaction also happened to Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corp., Escano Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc.+Lorenzo Shipping Corp. (the two had combined operations there before separating in a few years) and Madrigal Shipping and to all the minor liner shipping companies. The consistent move of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines determined their leading position later (is this what Ana Madrigal later said was “dirty”?). Meanwhile, the slide of the others can be traced to that.

If the other shipping companies that did not make the bold move to fast cruisers thought the next decade will be better, then they probably got the shock of their lives when the economy got worse, much worse in the 1980’s. Financial and political crisis grew with the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and there was widespread discontent. The 1980’s turned into a “massacre decade” for our shipping when most of our liner companies, major and minor, did not survive that decade alive.

Sweet Lines survived that decade alive but they were no longer first rank. Soon they will crash out too. But as they say, that is another story (and worth another article). Abangan!

In The Middle of the 1960’s We Needed New Liners and Europe Filled That Need And Not Japan

With the exception of De la Rama Steamship Company, the Philippine liner shipping companies that were born or resurrected after World War II were dependent on the former “FS” (for Freight and Supply) ships from the US Navy. That type of ship was the backbone of our postwar passenger fleet; it was also the most numerous. One reason for that was so many of that type was built during World War II and most were deployed in the Pacific Ocean campaign of the US. Having to pay for the Philippine prewar ships they requisitioned for the war effort that type became the most common replacement given by the US together with the former “F” ships. Aside from direct replacement, the US also had to dispose so many of them and instead of bringing them back to the US where they have no use of them, many were just given to the Philippine government as aid and reparations. The Philippine government then put them up for sale at near-bargain prices (about $60,000 only; where can you get a ship that cheap?). Of course, as always, political considerations mattered and so those who have political connections had the inside track in the purchase of these vessels.

Many of the Philippine liner shipping companies were so enamored with these former “FS” ships that they practically purchased no other vessel type for the next twenty years after the war. Among those were William Lines Incorporated, Southern Lines Incorporated (they also had former “F” ships too) and General Shipping Corporation. In other liner shipping companies’ fleets like that of Philippine Steamship Navigation Company/Everett Steamship, Hijos de F. Escano Incorporated and Manila Steamship Company, the former “FS” ships were in clear majority. Even in the venerable Compania Maritima’s fleet half of those were former “FS” ships. Meanwhile, half of fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company was composed of former “Y” ships which were related to the former “FS” ships. These were former tankers converted into passenger-cargo ships. There was no Negros Navigation Company route then yet to Manila. What had a route then to Manila was the small Ledesma Shipping Lines. Negros Navigation Company became a liner company when they and Ledesma Shipping Lines merged.

Being “enamored” with former “FS” ships also had a reason. They were cheap and while they may be basic sea transportation, the passengers were willing to put up with its deficiencies. And for whatever deficiency, sometimes good food is enough to make passengers overlook it. And so whenever a former “FS” ship becomes available in the market the liner shipping companies readily snapped it up. That goes true even for the fleet of the shipping companies that quit the shipping business like Manila Steamship in 1956 (along with some much smaller shipping companies).

The future great Carlos A. Go Thong & Company was not among the recipients of ships from the US as reparation. Their first ships were salvaged “F” ships that they bought. They only had their first ex-”FS” ships when they bought out the Pan-Oriental Shipping Company of the Quisumbings of Mandaue which then went into motorcycle assembly (the Norkis-Yamaha concern). Like Go Thong, the style of the other smaller passenger liner shipping company was to lengthen the hull of the former “F” ships so these will be “FS” ships equivalent. That was the origin of the first flagship of Go Thong, the Dona Conchita. However, some other small liner shipping companies which did not have enough capital or were just sailing minor routes simply sailed straight their small ex-”F” ships. Some other were also using converted minesweepers and PT boats. Many of the shipping companies in regional routes were using converted “F” ships and converted minesweepers.

These former “FS” ships like the other war surplus ships from the US like the “C1-M-AV1” ships were classified as “passenger-cargo” ships. Obviously, they carry passengers and cargo but it actually has a deeper meaning. In those days, passenger liner shipping companies don’t normally operate pure cargo ships like these recent decades. It is actually these passenger-cargo ships that carry the bulk of cargo in the inter-island route in liner operations (which means there is a fixed route and schedule). The passenger capacities of the ships then were small (there were no 1,000-passenger capacity liners then yet and tops then was just about 700 passenger capacity and normal was just about 300). What was more prized then sometimes were the cargo holds of the ships. Handled by booms (there were no container vans yet) the interport hours were long and departures especially in the interports were not prompt. As long as there is cargo to be loaded, the ships would not leave. Unloading of cargo then in the interport can already take several hours and with so many interport calls the longest-distance ports like Davao takes one week to be reached.

In the mid-1960’s the workhorse fleet from former US Navy ships were already long in the tooth. There were no more of that type to replace the hull losses and our population and trade was growing. Mindanao too has already experienced great migration from the Visayas and so migrants had to travel and goods had to be exchanged. Obviously there was a need to refleet or add to the fleet. The only company that was still able to acquire former “FS” ships from the US in the 1960’s was the newly-established Philippine President Lines, a shipping company well-backed from the highest circles of government. Most of what they were able to acquire were former “AKL” ships of the US Navy. These were former “FS” ships retained by the US Navy after the war and refurbished for use in supplying the many scattered islands and bases of the US in the wide Pacific Ocean. These ships were among the last of its type released by the US.

Some liner shipping companies which had easy starts because of political connections, specifically, Southern Lines Incorporated and General Shipping Corporation shirked from the challenge and quit shipping and simply sold their ships. Southern Lines’ ships went to various liner shipping companies while that of General Shipping Company was divided between Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Sweet Lines Incorporated. Amazingly, this gave birth to two separate events and entities. Once again, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation had a fleet of its own (before they were just a partner in the Philippine Steamship and Navigation together with Everett Steamship of the US; before the war they were partners with Hijos de F. Escano in La Naviera Filipina). The second event and entity was the regional shipping company Sweet Lines Incorporated became a long-distance liner company. General Shipping Corporation, meanwhile, followed another bandwagon and moved into foreign routes using ships chartered from the National Development Corporation of the Philippine government. It was not difficult for them because they were well-connected politically.

Since no surplus ships were still available from the US then a new source had to be found. Japan by this time was still building their merchant fleet because these were the years of Japan’s “economic miracle” of galloping growth and so no surplus ships were still available from them at that time. The only logical place to look at would then be Europe as the US as a nearly solid continental country has many locomotives and rail wagons but not passenger liner ships. Before this time Compania Maritima has already shown the way in sourcing surplus passenger-cargo ships from Europe. It was easy for them since they have Spanish origins and connections.

I will start from the companies that made moves in acquiring passenger cargo-ships from Europe starting from the one which made a big move. It was the shipping company Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. that was not a recipient of US reparations which took a big gamble in acquiring passenger-cargo ships from Europe. I don’t know but maybe there should not be a great deal of surprise there as they did not get any favors from the US or the government before which means they will have to pull their own bootstraps up themselves if they want to move up. And over a period of six years until 1969 they acquired a total of 9 European passenger-cargo ships for local waters (the Gothong, Dona Pamela, the Dona Gloria, Tayabas Bay, the Dona Rita, the Dona Helene, the Don Lorenzo, the Don Camilo and the first Don Sulpicio. Aside from the nine, Go Thong was able to acquire the big ships Subic Bay, Manila Bay and Sarangani Bay. The first two were C1-A ships of US built but acquired from Europe while the last was a former ship of De la Rama Steamship. Also acquired in the same period was Dona Anita, the former Governor B. Lopez of Southern Lines which has airconditioning and the Dona Hortencia, a former Northern Lines ship of Japanese origins.

Three of these ex-European ships were former refrigerated cargo ships and that means a lot because with refrigeration facilities then Go Thong can then build First Class sections, lounges and restaurants that have airconditioning. So cold drinks will be available anytime too (when the bulk of Filipino homes don’t have refrigerators yet) along with the capacity to carry loads that should remain frozen or chilled. These things were simply not possible with the ex-”FS” ships and besides these former ships from Europe were bigger, a little faster and they have big cargo holds which means more capacity for generating profitable runs. With 14 ship acquisitions Go Thong was already more than Compania Maritima in the inter-island routes before they broke up in 1972 even though they are using their big ships to Europe and the Far East.

For a major, William Lines Inc. had a rather tepid response. They only acquired two surplus ships from Europe (the sister ships Virginia and Zamboanga City, the first) in the mid-1960’s but they bought two former “FS” ships (the Dona Maria and Don Jose) let go by the other liner shipping companies (yes, they have a definite liking for that). The new liner company Sweet Lines Inc. acquired only one surplus passenger-cargo ships from Europe in this period (the Sweet Bliss) and that is understandable as they were just a new liner company. However, they also bought two passenger-cargo ships discarded by the other liner companies (these were not former “FS” ships).

Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, at the same time did not purchase any passenger-cargo ship from Europe. But in Philippine Steamship Navigation Company (PSNC) they had three passenger-cargo ships which has airconditioning and refrigeration which only arrived in 1955 (The Legaspi, Elcano and Cagayan de Oro). In effect, for them this is their equivalent of the passenger-cargo ships from Europe. The Philippine President Lines and its successor company for local routes Philippine Pioneer Lines purchased only one passenger cargo ship from Europe (the Aguinaldo) as they were already concentrating on their international routes (and that ship was soon passed to their foreign operations). In fact, they soon transferred their local operations to their subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines.

Special note should be given to two liner shipping companies that took a different tack and the higher road — those that purchased brand-new liners instead of surplus. One of them was Hijos de F. Escano (later known as Escano Lines). What they did was to take out loans and they ordered three brand-new passenger-cargo liners from West Germany which already had airconditioning. These are the Fatima, Agustina II and Fernando Escano II. Negros Navigation Company, meanwhile, which is establishing itself as a liner company outdid them and took a different supplier. They ordered brand-new liners with airconditioning starting in 1962 which was followed by one each in 1965 and 1967. Those ships were the second Princess of Negros, the Dona Florentina and the beautiful Don Julio, the second. The difference was they ordered their liners from Japan except for the first which was ordered from Hongkong.

Compania Maritima also ordered one brand-new liner with airconditioning from West Germany, the Visayas. Compania Maritima also acquired two big cargo-passenger ships from De la Rama Steamship, the Lingayen Gulf and the Sarangani Bay. They also acquired a local-built liner from General Shipping Corporation that had already airconditioning which they renamed as the Mactan. As a footnote, Sweet Lines Inc. also ordered one brand-new liner from West Germany, the Sweet Grace which for me was rather surprising for a new liner company given that older but more “conservative” liner companies did not go into this direction.

Among those that did not make moves were Madrigal Shipping Company and De la Rama Steamship, two formerly revered names in shipping. Madrigal Shipping Company were then already disposing ships either to the breakers or to other companies. Among the local liner shipping companies, they, together with the already-defunct-then Manila Steamship Company had the penchant for buying really old ships from Europe before and so its expected life is not long. Moreover, Madrigal Shipping Company was by this time already losing in their quixotic routes to Northern Luzon and Northern Bicol and it was just practically using the remaining life of the ferries they have not disposed off. They had only one ship acquired from Europe in this period that they did not immediately dispose of and this was the Viria. Like the rest of their acquisitions this was small because their routes were minor compared to the rest. Hence, this acquisition was not comparable to the European acquisition of the others.

Meanwhile, De la Rama Steamship at the middle of the 1960’s was beginning to function just as international shipping agents. They have already disposed then of almost all their ships including those chartered from the National Development Corporation and they have long disposed of their former “FS” and “F” ships. Two of their big ships went to Compania Maritima in this period.

The smaller passenger liner companies with lesser routes and revenues proved incapable of moving up to the European category of ships, brand-new or surplus. However, four upstart companies tried to join this trend. The new Dacema Lines Incorporated was able to purchase two old passenger-cargo liners from West Germany in 1967, the Athena and the Demeter. The new E. K. Litonjua Steamship Company Incorporated/Eddie Steamships (Philippines), Incorporated was able to do likewise with three old passenger-cargo ships from various countries, the Sultan KL, the Aurelio KL and the Eddie KL. Another upstart, the Northern Lines Incorporated was able to acquire two passenger-cargo ships in this period (along with cargo ships), the Don Salvador and the Don Rene and surprisingly the source of their ships was Japan. Another newcomer, the MD Shipping Corporation was also able to procure a surplus passenger-cargo ship from Norway, the Leon. Except for the Northern Lines ships the ship mentioned did not really last long because they were already old when they can here.

These moves or non-moves determined the fate of the liner shipping companies for the next ten years. With the bold move of Carlos A. Gothong & Co. they moved up fast in the totem pole of the local liner shipping companies that by the start of the 1970’s they were not only barking at the heels of Compania Maritima but has already achieved parity or were even slightly ahead already in the inter-island routes. On the other end of the pole those that did not acquire any or practically had no acquisition were already gone from the inter-island routes in the next ten years and this included Philippine Pioneer Lines and the successor company Galaxy Lines. Madrigal Shipping Company by then had also disposed of almost of their ships and had almost no more ships sailing. The ships of the two companies many of which were ex-”FS” and ex-”Y” ships went to minor liner companies NCL/NORCAMCO Lines (the former North Camarines Lumber) and N&S Lines.

All these moves or non-moves in the middle of the 1960’s determined the fate and the positions of the liner shipping companies from the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s. Go Thong, a relative newcomer in liner shipping moved up a lot in liner shipping tier with their big acquisition. The liner shipping companies that made enough acquisitions in the mid-1960’s chugged along and generally did not lose rank for the next decade, relatively. Among these were Compania Maritima, William Lines Inc., Sweet Lines and Escano Lines. Philippine Steamships and Navigation Co. declined. The ex-”FS” ships were no longer as competitive in the 1970’s and the “C1-M-AV1” ships did not prove resilient and the the Type N3 ships even less durable. Negros Navigation Company was on the way up as they have new ship. The smaller liner companies that were still dependent of ex-”FS” ships (and the related ex-”Y” ships) and the ex-”F” and former minesweepers and were not refleeting were already on the way down. That included Bisayan Land Transport, NORCAMCO, N&S Lines, Rodrigueza Lines and many other small operators.

As recap, twenty years after our inter-island fleet basically relied on war-surplus ships from the US, the first augmentation we had were ferries sourced from Europe as ships from Japan were still rare in the mid-1960’s because they were in the midst of their own economic boom. Up to the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s we will still source liners from Europe (like the legendary Sweet Faith). It will in the next decade when Japan will be our main supplier of surplus passenger ships.

So from war-surplus ships from the US in the end of the war and up to early 1960’s to European surplus ships in the 1960’s to Japan surplus ships in the 1970’s – these were what marked the early periods of our postwar liner shipping, the period most people now are no longer aware of. This article seeks to fill that void.

[Photo Credit: coasters-remembered.net]