The Princess of the Orient

When William Lines fielded the Wililines Mabuhay 1 in the premier Manila-Cebu route as their challenger in the flagship wars, her main shipping rival Sulpicio Lines rolled out the bigger Princess of the Orient as their answer. Amazingly, the two ships in came from the same company in Japan and both belonged to the highly-regarded and legendary “Sun Flower series” of the Nihon Kosoku Ferry of the Terukuni group. The Princess of the Orient was the Sun Flower 11 while the Mabuhay 1 was the Sun Flower 5. The Princess of the Orient was a lengthened version of the series of sister sister and she had two center funnels in a line. Her superstructure was different too and that was the reason, along with the length, that it was not obvious that the two belonged to the same series of ships. The forepart below the bridge was convex too so she did not look as angular as Mabuhay 1. She also had long bridge wings.

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Sun Flower 11 (Photo by funekichemurase)

The “Sun Flower” series of luxury ships was the dream of Mr. Kijiro Nakagawa, the shipping king of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan. He was the Chief of the Terukuni Kauin which controlled the Nihon Kosoku Ferry, the operator of the beautiful, luxurious and well-regarded “Sun Flower” series of ships which was the nearest equivalent in Japan of the highly-regarded and famous Stena series of luxury ships of Sweden. In this series of seven, it was Sun Flower 11 which was the biggest and longest.

The Sun Flower 11 was built by the Kurushima Dockyard Company in their Onishi shipyard in 1974. At 195.8 meters length over-all (LOA), she was 10 meters longer than her sister ships but she had a similar breadth like the others at 24.0 meters. Consequently, her gross tonnage (GT) was larger at 13,598 and her DWT (deadweight tonnage) was 3,110 tons. This big ship was powered by two Kawasaki-MAN diesel engines of 28,000 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 25 knots when new. Her engine configuration were different from her sister ships and she had only two, not four and her engine arrangement, having no synchronizers, were different, too.

The ship already had the then-very-modern bulbous stem but her stern was cruiser and this contributed to her more rounded look (compared to the angular look of her sister ships). She had three passenger decks and two car decks plus a mezzanine deck for sedans. This ship was actually one of the so-called “highways of the sea” — overnight ROROs on long-distance routes of Japan via overnight voyages mainly and that was why they needed to be fast. Catering not only to truckers but also to commuters and travelers, they were given luxurious accommodations with many amenities including good food and entertainment.

Unlike Sun Flower 5, Sun Flower 11 had no front quarter ramps nor a bow ramp. What she had instead at the front was a side ramp on the starboard side. She was also equipped with two stern quarter ramps of the three-piece kind. For added comfort for passengers in rough seas, the ship was also equipped with fin stabilizers which decreased the roll of the ship (the swaying from side to side). She was also advertised to have a computer-controlled steering system. Maybe that meant it was computer inputs and motors that controlled the action of the rudder (and the stabilizers) and not via the traditional cables. Her original route was Osaka to Kagoshima.

The “Sun Flower” series of luxury ships were not successful financially because the Oil Crisis of 1973 where fuel prices spiked caught them hard. Terukuni Yusen went bankrupt but Nihon Kosoku Ferry continued operations. In 1984, the Sun Flower 11 was sold to her builder Kurushima Dockyard Company along Sun Flower 5 but she was chartered back to Nihon Kosoku Ferry so that their operations can continue. However, in 1990, Nihon Kosoku Ferry finally gave up and Sun Flower 11 (and Sun Flower 5) went to Nihon Enkai Ferry which was later named as the Blue Highway Line. So though future competitors in the Philippines that was how tightly interwoven were the careers of two luxury sister ships. In 1991, she was renamed as the Sun Flower Satsuma and in 1993, she was sold to the Philippines (together with Sun Flower 5).

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Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

Sun Flower Satsuma went to Sulpicio Lines Inc. (SLI) and her sister ship, the original Sun Flower 5 (renamed as Sun Flower Osaka) went to William Lines Inc., SLI’s chief rival. And so the intertwined sister ships began their battle in the Philippines as flagships of the two leading shipping companies then. In refitting and conversion, the superstructure of Sun Flower Satsuma was largely left unchanged except that additional scantling was added to the whole top deck to accommodate the Economy class. The mezzanine of the car deck was also converted into additional Economy accommodations. However, since this lacked ventilation it was hot and not too liked by the passengers.

In the conversion, the Gross Tonnage (GT) of the ship barely rose from 13,593 in to 13,734 here. She had a net tonnage of 6,445 locally and a deadweight tonnage of 3,172. She was given the local Call Sign of DUAO8. The main difference here compared to Japan was her big drop in speed. Unlike Mabuhay 1 which was still capable of 20 knots, she can only do 18.5 knots, the reason why she takes 21 hours for the 393-nautical mile Manila-Cebu route. With a tall air height and tall masts, she goes around Mactan Island as she cannot go under the two Mactan bridges. She only did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week that is why she has plenty of lay-overs.

The Princess of the Orient had eight accommodation classes. Highest was the Royal and the Imperial Suites which was not really meant for the common passengers even if they can afford it. Those were reserved for the relatives of the owners and the rich of Cebu who still took ships then. The other classes were the Suite, the Cabin for 4 with Toilet and Bath, the Cabin for 2 w/o Toilet and Bath, the Tourist Deluxe, Tourist, Economy Deluxe (air-conditioned Economy) and Economy. If P464 was the fare of the lowest class then P1,650 was the passage of the highest class but it has all the amenities and its occupants need not go to the restaurants for their meals because it will be served right there and they have their own personal sala so they need not mix with the hoi polloi. This was also true for Suite passengers.

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Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

The Princess of the Orient had the biggest passenger capacity ever by a liner in the Philippines at 3,912 persons which was almost double that of her main rival Mabuhay 1. Being super-big she had plenty of space, accommodations and amenities. It was tiring to make the rounds of the spaces devoted to passengers especially if one includes the converted mezzanine (many thought this had no access to the rest of the ship but if one knows how to read general arrangement plans then one could reach it from the other classs). With its big space and few windows, the Tourist of this ship can be disorienting after one wakes up as from the bunk one can’t tell if it is night or day. In roaming this section too, one has to mind his route as it is not easy to locate back one’s bunk because the passageways are byzantine-like. In the First Class at the forward portion of the ship, it was rows and rows of cabins. In the Economy in the converted top deck it was one long walk from one end to the other.

All the passage classes were entitled to free meals aboard the ship. The highest classes will be assigned to the First Class restaurant and here it was eat-all-you-can as in smorgasbord, a feature of dining always appreciated by top passengers in Sulpicio Lines. The Tourist classes also have their own restaurant and here real china and crystal glasses were used along with linen. The Third Class restaurant, meanwhile, resembles a cafeteria and steel trays were used and glasses were plastic. Nevertheless, since it is rice-all-you-can, the passengers will still have full stomachs especially since it is soup-all-you-can. In Third Class, meals will be by schedule, it was announced in loudspeakers and bellmen will make the rounds to call out as not all Economy passengers can be accommodated in one sitting (well, the bellmen also make a round of the Tourist sections since the favorite activity of the passengers is sleeping). Well, even in the Tourist restaurant, long queues can form and some passengers rather than line up will just come back at a later hour. Anyway, they know that for sure the meals and the unlimited rice will never run out in Sulpicio Lines.

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(c) closedcircuitdivers.com.au. Credits also to Arckz Pananganan

The Princess of the Orient had plenty of amenities and offerings. She was also sold as “hotel on the sea” and as a “floating convention center”. For this purpose, she had a conference room with all the necessary equipment. As “floating hotel”, her suites were luxurious and had amenities that can be found in good hotel rooms. For First Class passengers there was a separate VIP lounge for them not accessible to the passengers of the lower passage classes. For unwinding during the night, there was a theater with live entertainment where drinks and finger food can be ordered. The ship also had a dance floor with dance instructors. For the children, there were kiddie rides, video games and playground equipment. She was also equipped with a gym for those wanting to work out a sweat. Well, visiting all the parts of the ship was already a work-out as one deck from one end to the other was already a third of a kilometer and there were three-and-a-half decks to roam plus there were stairs to navigate.

After sailing serenely for four years, the Princess of the Orient had a bad incident when on December of 1997 she caught fire in the engine room while refueling in North Harbor. With significant damage she was sent to Singapore for repairs. It was noticeable that she had a slight but visible list to port and rumors ascribed it to the fire and some said her fin stabilizers were also damaged and locked into position. It also seemed she lost a little speed to just 18 knots.

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Princess of the Orient (Credits to Nonoy Lacza, Manila Chronicle & Gorio Belen)

On September 18, 1998, on one voyage from Manila, she left port in a typhoon (based on the Philippine definition of typhoon which is just a storm or a gale in other countries). Liners then can routinely leave port at Signal Number 2 (this was defined then as having center winds of 91-120kph). It was a Friday night 10:00 PM when Princess of the Orient left Manila North Harbor about two hours late. Most probably she waited a little for the typhoon to pass. During that time, “Typhoon Gading” (“Typhoon Vicki” internationally) was already in the Quirino-Pangasinan border in northern Luzon.

The 8:00 PM weather bulletin of PAGASA, THE forecast winds was only 100 KPH at the center. A few hours before that PAGASA said the center winds was only 75 KPH. With the typhoon completely passing in a few hours and with such low forecast of winds, maybe it put complacence on the Captain and on the company. However, the 100 KPH center winds was a severe underestimation as later analysis by other weather centers put the true strength of the typhoon at 160 KPH which is already in Signal No. 3 and hence, dangerous to all sea vessels (now 45 KPH can already deemed “dangerous” for all sea vessels except for foreign vessels which have no tolerance for such inanity and just continue sailing in our waters when all our local ships, big or small are suspended from sailing). The Typhoon Vicki case earned PAGASA censure from other weather forecasting agencies.

Coming out of Manila Bay, the Princess of the Orient was subjected to fierce winds, much more than what they expected. Reports and speculation said the container vans on chassis with wheels were not properly secured (maybe that meant only wooden chocks were used) and these moved in a situation where the car deck was not full. A mariner familiar with her theorized she had not fully ballasted by the time she left Manila Bay as it takes several hours for her to be fully ballasted (and hence lowering her center of gravity and adding to her depth, the portion of the ship below water).

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The long reach of Typhoon Vicki (NOAA image)

Soon, the Princess of the Orient developed an uncontrollable list to port around 12 midnight, a dangerous condition in a severe tropical storm or higher (with winds maybe over 120 KPH, locally). A survivor I had talked to who suffered a broken collarbone because he slammed into a bulkhead said the list then was already over 45 degrees. Remember she had a previous list to port and waves were continuously pounding her at the bow and at starboard. The Board of Marine inquiry later blamed the Captain for errors in handling the situation.

Off the shores of Cavite province, the ship floundered about 5 minutes before 1:00 AM. She was able to launch life rafts and in the gathering light of the day these were seen by Cavite fishermen bobbing in the angry swells. In the Philippines, it is the fishermen who are the bravest in strong seas and they are the best hope of passengers struggling to survive in these kinds of seas. Even with such dangerous conditions, the brave Cavite fishermen launched their fishing bancas before light to come to the aid of the passengers of the Princess of the Orient. The Coast Guard rescue boats arrived much later.

Of the 388 passengers and 102 crewmen aboard the ship, 95 lost their lives in the floundering of the Princess of the Orient. Some sources though said the number of deaths reached 150 but there could be speculation in that number. The Captain did not survive the loss of his ship and a witness said the last time he saw him, the Captain was assisting passengers into life rafts. I was taught Captains should behave that way in such critical situations.

Today, Princess of the Orient lies on its port side in the seabed at 150 meters depth a few kilometers off the coast of Cavite. She has now become a dive site although few can reach her because of the depth.

The Princess of the Orient sailed for five years only here. What a waste of a great liner!

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