A Good Ship That Was Not Able To Outrun A Typhoon

The FS-220, when she came to the Philippines in 1960 was among the last “FS” ships that arrived in the country. She was among the batch used by the US Navy after the war for resupply missions and released from service starting in 1959. For reasons that are not yet clear to me I do not know how the newly-established Philippine President Lines (PPL) was able to corner a big chunk of these last-released “FS” ships. And that batch was the envy of many and even abroad because the US Navy knows how to maintain its ships (and it has the budget) and compared to ex-”FS” ships already in the country which just sails and sails that last batch does not have worn engines yet.

The FS-220 was a ship built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, USA which was the designer and builder of the famous Higgins boats. She measured 54.9 meters by 9.8 meters by 3.2 meters and originally had 573 tons in gross register tonnage. Like most other “FS” ships she was powered by two GM Cleveland engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower and her maximum speed was 12 knots.

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Photo credits: Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

FS” ships transferred from the US Army (the operator in World War II) to the US Navy for postwar duty usually have alterations already to suit their mission. Many still undergo further conversions here to suit the local shipping needs and situation and that mainly consists of increasing the passenger capacity.

In the Philippine President Lines fleet, the FS-220 became known as the President Roxas. She was the first ship to carry this name in the fleet. She was also known now by the ID IMO 6117958. Upon conversion, she already had three passenger decks including the lowermost where cargo is also stowed. The first route of the President Roxas was Manila-Cebu-Iligan.

The Philippine President Lines did not last long in the inter-island route and when it concentrated on overseas shipping they established the subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 to take over the inter-island operations and so the President Roxas went to Philippine Pioneer Lines. Her first route for this new company was the quaint Manila-Masbate-Bulan-Allen-Legaspi-Tabaco route. As such she became a Bicol specialist with a slight diversion to Samar. This was the period when sending a ship to Bicol still made sense.

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Photo credits: The Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After two major accidents in 1966 which were the floundering of the Pioneer Cebu in a typhoon and the collision involving Pioneer Leyte which lead to her breaking up, Philippine Pioneer Lines ceased operation. In 1967, Galaxy Lines replaced her and the fleet of Philippine Pioneer Lines was transferred into the Galaxy fleet. The President Roxas became the Venus in the fleet of Galaxy Lines where ships were named after constellations.

She did not last long in Galaxy Lines, however, and was sold immediately sold to N&S Lines, Inc. Galaxy Lines no longer had Bicol routes while N&S Lines had Bicol and Samar routes and maybe the reason for the sale was to avoid taking out a ship in those routes. In N&S Lines, she did the Manila-Allen-Carangian (now known as San Jose)-Legaspi (now spelled as Legazpi)-Laoang route. Only the route to Tabaco port was the one practically dropped.

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Photo credits: Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Venus would hold for long that route and leaving Manila every Tuesday at 9pm. Slowly, she became a fixture in this route. In 1976, a new ship, the Queen of Samar of Newport Shipping Lines issued a challenge to her. There were other passenger-cargo ships to her route from Manila with slightly different ports of call but the ships of the New Shipping Lines were the most dangerous as the Queen of Samar was not the only ship that entered the Northern Samar and nearby routes. In fact, it totaled six. I really can’t understand what was the attraction of Northern Samar and the nearby ports to Newport Shipping Lines.

And then from that in just three years the bottom fell out for these routes because suddenly the San Bernardino Strait was connected by the RORO ship Cardinal I of Cardinal Shipping and suddenly buses and trucks from Manila started running to Samar directly. There was no longer any need to bring the cargo to North Harbor. Ditto for the passengers. Suddenly, the viability of the Samar routes began to evaporate and what was just propping it up was the intermediate route to Masbate.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Though the Manila ships began to evaporate too in the routes passing through San Bernardino Strait especially those that had concentration to Bicol, the Venus was one of the most resilient and she outlasted practically every other passenger-cargo ship in the Northern Samar routes when to think buses and trucks were already arriving daily there. Maybe there were passengers which still prefer the ship or might have been too attached to them.

Nearing her 40th year of life, Venus was sailing from Samar to Manila. There was a Category 5 super-typhoon then approaching the Philippines from the east and its central pressure was 880 millibars which is even lower than Typhoon “Yolanda”’s 890 millibars (the lower the number the stronger is the typhoon). There was also a typhoon that was developing in South China See at the same time. Maybe Venus thought that by sailing she will be putting distance from the stronger typhoon and might have underestimated or failed to notice the storm in South China Sea which was just a tropical depression when she sailed. It seems Venus also failed to understand well the effects on the sea of a Sibuyan Sea. The two typhoons were actually interacting and in fact the stronger typhoon was sucking the weaker one. Venus might have failed to understand well the risks when she embarked on her final voyage.

It was in Sibuyan Sea when Venus finally discovered the sea was roiling and the winds were unforgiving. The ex-”FS” ships were particularly vulnerable to typhoons and that was why her old captains here were masters of finding the coves and inlets where they can hide or shelter the ship when the weather acts up.

It seems Venus tried to hightail it to a port or was desperately trying to find shelter (as she already diverted from her route if gauged from where she perished). However, in Tayabas Bay it seems Venus was not able to weather the wind and the waves and floundered on October 28, 1984 (in Tayabas Bay the winds then will be hitting her broadside at port). There was no trace of the ship after the typhoon and 36 people perished with her, unfortunately.

On a note, the Lorenzo Container VIII of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation was another ship that floundered in that twin interacting storm. This even bigger ship sank on the same day as Venus north of Abra de Ilog, Occidental Mindoro, in a sea which is even farther than the stronger typhoon (which was incidentally named also as Typhoon “Reming” like the deadliest storm to visit Bicol in the recent decades).

The sinking of Venus even had repercussions in our place. When about to ride a ship, my earthbound relatives would remind me of her fate (you know the oldies then!). The floundering in another typhoon of the Dona Marilyn in a nearby sea, the Samar Sea, four years later in 1988 did not help either.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The Venus served the same route for 17 years. That was long by any local measure. It took two typhoons to end her memorable career. Small shipping companies really take hard a sinking and coupled with weakening routes and the general crisis of that era, the Ninoy post-assassination years, N&S Lines, her company also went under.

After the sinking of Venus, the routes to Northern Samar from Manila also died. In the 1990’s MBRS Lines from Romblon tried to revive it. But there was really no way to defeat the new paradigm, the intermodal system. And so it died again. Finally.

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Shouldn’t We Be Downsizing Our Liners Now?

In the ten years after the end of World War II, the bulk of our liners were ex-”FS” ships with a sprinkling of former “F” ships, former “Y” ships and former small minesweepers of the US Navy which were even smaller ships. The first-mentioned ship was only 55 meters in length. Passenger capacity then of 200-300 were normal. The built capacity was not too high as our population was still small then with a little over 20 million people and besides, the country and the economy were just beginning to recover from the devastation of the Pacific War

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An ex-“FS” ship (Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

In the next decade after that, there came the lengthened former “FS” ships which are over 60 meters in length with three decks. Passenger capacities then rose a bit. The lengthening of ex-”FS” ships, which was still the dominant liner type then was a response to the growing capacity need because the population was beginning to increase and trade was also on the rise. In 1960, our population already rose to 27 million.

In this period, there were no other sources yet of new liners as the European market was not yet discovered except by Compania Maritima and practically there were no surplus ships yet from Japan. It is true that we then already had some big ships mainly in the form of ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships which were US surplus from the war and former European passenger-cargo ships in Compania Maritima’s fleet. These big liners (by Philippine standards) averaged some 100 meters in length.

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An ex-“C1’M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

In passenger capacity, however, those big liners then were not even double in passenger capacity compared to lengthened ex-”FS” ships. It was normal for them to have cargo holds in the bow and in the stern of the ship with the passenger accommodations in an “island” at the middle of the ship or amidship. Those big liners normally had only about 500 persons in passenger capacity.

Actually, when the European passenger-cargo ship Tekla came in 1965 to become the Don Arsenio of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co., she was then already tops in the Philippines in passenger capacity at about 700 persons. To think Go Thong has the tendency to maximize and pack it in and that ship was already 110 meters in length and one of the biggest in the country. [Well, liners of the 1990’s of that length already had more than double of that in passenger capacity.]

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Elcano by suro yan

In the middle of the 1960’s, big ships from Europe started to arrive for Go Thong and William Lines and also for Compania Maritima which had been buying ships from Europe right after the end of the war. These shipping companies had the long routes then which extended up to southern Mindanao which had many intermediate ports. Hence, big capacity matters to them. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Company) which also had routes to southern Mindanao was using ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships or if not they were using their luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano which were 87 meters in length (the two were sister ships).

It was the pattern that as the years went by the ships got bigger and its passenger capacities rose. That was a function of our country’s population increasing and hence also its trade because more population needs more commodities and goods. I am actually interested in the trivia which liner first had a 1,000 passenger capacity but right now I don’t have that data. Maybe that ship emerged sometime in the 1970’s.

In 1970, we already had a population of 37 million. And one change was Mindanao was already colonized, its population was growing fast and its new people had to connect to the rest of the country because this time most of the population of Mindanao were no longer native-born as in they were migrants from other parts of the country.

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Don Sulpicio  (Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library)

One benchmark in capacity was the Don Sulpicio which became the Sulpicio Lines flagship when she came in 1975. She had a passenger capacity of 1,424 (this could be the latter figure after refitting from a fire). But her sister ship Dona Ana has a bigger net tonnage and might had a bigger passenger capacity especially since her route was Davao while Don Sulpicio‘s route was only Cebu. The Don Sulpicio later became the infamous Dona Paz which supposedly loaded 4,000 plus passengers (guffaw!)

These two ships were only in the 90-meter class but one thing that changed with the arrival of the cruisers that were not formerly cargo or cargo-passengers ships is that they had full scantling already so the passenger accommodation stretches from the bridge to the stern of the ship. And one more, the liners became taller with more passenger decks and it is even up to bridge or navigation deck.

Of course, their spaces were not as big as the big 1990’s liners. Riding a 1970’s liner, one would find that all the spaces are “miniaturized” from the size of the bunks to the spaces between the bunks, the tables and the restaurants and the lounges. They were simply a different beast than their counterparts two decades later where spaces and amenities were really ample.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

In the early 1980’s, passenger capacities of over 1,000 was already commonplace with the biggest liners in the 110 and 120 meter class and with some featuring four passenger decks already. Actually as early as 1979 with the arrival of the sister ships Don Enrique and Don Eusebio which were southern Mindanao specialists, their capacities already touched 1,200 and yet they were only in the 110 meter class. The two were the latter Iloilo Princess and Dipolog Princess, respectively.

Actually, passenger maximization was already the game then as even 70-80 meter liners built in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, both cruisers and ROROs, already had capacities averaging 800 or so persons. These were the pocket liners in the 1980’s when the former smallest, the lengthened “FS” ships were already bowing out. In 1980, the country’s population already reached 48 million. With the development of the roads even the people of the interior were already traveling.

1980 Dona Virginia

Photo credits: Daily Express and Gorio Belen

On December of 1979, the first ship to reach 2,000 in passenger capacity arrived. This ship was the flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was also the longest liner then in the country with a length of 143 meters, the longest then in our ferry fleet. And to think the Dona Virginia was not even a tall ship.

In 1988, further bigger liners arrived in the country. The Cotabato Princess which was also a southern Mindanao liner also reached 2,000 in passenger capacity. Its sister ship Nasipit Princess also had the same capacity. Both were 149 meters in length. But the new champion was the very big Filipina Princess which had a passenger capacity of over 2,900. This great liner had a length of 180 meters.

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In the 1990’s, liners of 2,000-passenger capacity or a little less became commonplace. The liner with the biggest ever capacity that existed here was the Princess of the Orient with a passenger capacity of 3,900. It was the longest-ever ship that sailed here at 195 meters. Other ships of this era that had passenger capacities of over 3,000 were the Princess of the Universe and the Princess of Paradise. Both were over 165 meters in length. All the ships mentioned from Cotabato Princess up to Princess of Paradise were liners of Sulpicio Lines.

Even with these high capacities of 2,000 and over the liners were able to pack it in in the 1990’s. I was once a passenger of the Princess of the Paradise on a Christmas trip when all bunks were taken (maybe if there were vacancies it was in the cabins). I also had a same experience on a June trip aboard the Our Lady of Akita (the latter SuperFerry 6) and the crew had to lay mattresses in the hallways because the ship was overbooked. And that ship have a passenger capacity of over 2,600. [Maybe we were technically not “overloaded” as there might have been vacancies in the cabins.]

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Princess of the Orient from Britz Salih

But things began to change in the new millennium. Maybe there was already a surplus of bottoms because there was a race then to acquire liners in the term of President Fidel V. Ramos as it was encouraged and supported. But budget airlines also came along with the intermodal buses. The demand for ship bunks began to slacken and the liners can no longer pack it in like before.

This trend was reflected in the liners fielded starting in 2000. Among the liners of the new millennium only SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 reached 2,000 in passenger capacity and just barely. And to think they are 174 meters in length. The new liners of Aboitiz Transport System already had two wagon decks instead of four passenger decks. But on a look-back the two wagon decks were also not fully loaded.

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Photo credit: port of douglas

The liner acquisitions of Sulpicio Lines in the new millennium both did not reach 2,000 passengers in capacity. Not even the very big Princess of the Stars, the Philippines’ biggest liner ever. So even Sulpicio Lines recognized that passenger demand was already declining. But unlike Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they did not convert liners to have two cargo decks. Well, unlike ATS, Sulpicio Lines have many container ships to carry the container vans.

After 2005, only Aboitiz Transport System, Negros Navigation and latter 2GO still acquired liners (excepting Romblon Shipping Lines). None had a passenger capacity that reached 2,000. Some even had passenger capacities of less than 1,000. Most had two wagon decks that does not get full.

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SuperFerry 21 by Nowell Alcancia

If liners can no longer get full in passengers and in container vans then what is the use of acquiring liners of 150 meters length and with over 20,000 horsepower? It is useless. Liners should have lower horsepower now because fuel is the number one expense in shipping. There is also no use now running them at 19 or 20 knots. The overnight ferries have shown the way. Even though their ships are capable of higher speeds they just use economical speed now. No more racing.

Actually, the new overnight ships like what Cokaliong Shipping Lines is acquiring could be the new liners. These average 80 meters in length. Or maybe ships a little bigger than those could be acquired. And that will be like the former Cebu Ferries that were pulled out from the Visayas-Mindanao routes. Their length averages 95 meters. The engine power of all of these are all not topping 9,000 horsepower and yet they are capable of 17-18 knots if needed and that was the range then of many liners in the 1990’s.

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Our Lady of Lourdes by Ray Smith

I think the new size paradigm of the liners should just be about 100 meters maximum with a horsepower of 10,000 or less and a speed of no more than 18 meters. That will be like the smaller liners of the late 1980’s like the Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which were 101 meters in length and had 8,200hp. The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines in that era was 98 meters in length had engines of 8,000hp total. Yet, all three were capable of 17 knots here.

Maybe another and probably better paradigm were the former Our Lady of Medjugorje and the Our Lady of Sacred Heart also of CAGLI. Both were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan but were beautifully refitted here. Both were 123 meters in length but only had 9,000 and 8,000 horsepower, single-engined. The passenger capacity of the two even averaged over 1,500 passengers. They might not be too speedy at about 16 knots but we have to be practical and have to scale back. In amenities and space, the two were good. The former SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation is also a good model. At 118 meters, 9,300 horsepower, 16 knots she was a credible liner then with a passenger capacity of 2,000 . All the quoted speed were when they were already running here when they had additional metal and the engines were no longer new

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Our Lady of Medjugorje from Britz Salih

But technology has improved and for the same engine horsepower a ship can be faster. Take for example the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated. At only 9,000 horsepower and 110 meters in length, she is still capable of 18 knots here.

If liners are smaller with smaller engines then maybe weaker routes abandoned might be viable again. I think Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO had to scale back on routes because their liners and its engines were too big for the weaker routes. They tried to shoehorn a 150-meter liner in the like of Tagbilaran. No liner of that size did a Tagbilaran route before. Like even at the peak of passenger shipping no shipping company sent a liner of that size to Roxas City.

But government also has to help. Maybe, one possible step maybe is to limit the number of container ships. There might be too many of them sailing already. It is growing at a rate much ahead of our trade and production growth. So it simply diminishes the capability of a liner to be viable.

In the past before 1978, our cargo is being carried by the passenger-cargo ships. That was the reason why there was so many liners then as in over 60 in total and even 90 in the 1960’s when ships were smaller and ex-”FS” ships still dominated. What happened next is while our inter-island container fleet is growing, our liner fleet was also growing smaller because cargo is also being carried by the container ships.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

On the same route there is no way a liner can carry cargo cheaper than container ships. For the same length the container ships have much less smaller engines, the acquisition cost is much less, insurance is smaller and crewing is much smaller too and there is less regulation. Of course, they are slow. But let upon liners in competition they can practically sink the liners. I heavily doubt if our government functionaries understand this relationship and history.

It might be anti-competitive but if the government does not intervene I think our liner sector will sink and be wiped out. One possible intervention even is to decree that vehicles can only be carried by the liners. This will be added revenue for the liners. Or that liners should have fuel that is cheaper. Of course some will balk at that and suspicions of fuel diversion will always be aired. But good controls can be put in place. Unless we as a people is really that corrupt and bribable.

As it is, 2GO is profitable now when the world market prices of oil plummeted. But then one thing that worries me is their fares on the average are not lower than the budget airlines and the intermodal buses. With longer time of travel they cannot compete with budget airlines in the long run. And with frequencies that are not daily the passengers will not really wait for them.

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Maybe we should go back to this size

If the government wants the liner sector to stay it cannot just be verbal encouragement. Press or praise releases and promises are also next to nothing. There should be concrete steps and a program if they really want to save this sector. But is there anybody in government high enough that really understands this sector?

The government can put out all the verbal encouragement for other entities to enter this sector but I don’t think those who know shipping will enter this segment as things stand now. Downsizing is maybe one step that can arrest the downslide of passenger liner shipping.