The Start and Impact of Containerization on Local Shipping

Containerization or the use of container vans to transport goods began in the Philippines in 1976, a decade after containerization began to take hold internationally. The new method was started by Aboitiz Shipping Corporation when they converted their 1,992-gross ton general cargo ship “P. Aboitiz” into a container carrier. This was followed by the conversion of their general cargo ship “Sipalay” in 1978. These first two container ships had limited capacity in terms of TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit) which is the common measure of container capacity that can be carried by container ships but it more than showed the direction of cargo loading in the future. And it also showed that general cargo ships can be converted container carriers.

By 1978 and 1979, containerization was already in full swing in the Philippines when major competitor shipping companies William Lines Inc., Sulpicio Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Company also embraced the new paradigm and competed. This new wave was also joined at the same time by two other small and new shipping companies, the Sea Transport Company and Solid Shipping Lines. Except for these two, our pioneers in container shipping were passenger liner (which means there are fixed schedules and routes) shipping companies.

The leading liner shipping company then which was Compania Maritima declined to follow suit into containerization along with Gothong Lines while the others like Sweet Lines, Negros Navigation and Hijos de F. Escano followed a little later in the early 1980’s. Gothong Lines, however, was into small ROROs early and these can also load container vans. Sweet Lines later founded a separate cargo-container company, the Central Shipping Company.

Like Compania Maritima, Madrigal Shipping, another old shipping company also did not follow into containerization. The smaller passenger liner companies also did not or were not capable into going to containerization. Among them were Galaxy Lines, N & S Lines, Northern Lines, Bisayan Land Transport, Newport Shipping, Cardinal Shipping, Dacema Lines, Rodrigueza Shipping, etc. Soon all of them were gone from Philippine waters and one reason was that they failed to adapt to the new paradigm and shippers were already demanding for container vans.

Before the advent of container vans, dry cargo were handled bulk or break-bulk. Bulk is when the whole ship is loaded with grains or copra. But bulk shipment is not possible in the passenger-cargo ships then as major parts of the ship is devoted to passengers and its requirements. Along with passengers, the passenger-cargo ships then carried various merchandise as in finished goods from the city like canned goods, “sin” products and construction materials. On the return trip, it would carry farm products like copra, abaca, rice, corn or dried fish. Since it was mixed, it was called break-bulk. It was mainly handled by cargo booms and porters and stowed in the ships’ cargo holds. Since it was mixed and has no containers aside from boxes the handling was long and tedious and it was vulnerable to pilferage and damage by handling and by the weather.

With the coming of container vans the weaknesses of the old way of loading that led to damage and pilferage were minimized by a big degree. Actually, the arranging of the goods was even passed on to the shipper or trader and all the container shipping company had to do was haul aboard the container. The new system needed much less labor (who can be balky at times and disputes with them can lead to delays or intentional damage) than before and the loading is faster because containers can simply be stacked one atop the other. This was difficult with breakbulk because of possible contamination and because the cargo had no containers it was difficulty to simply stack them and this even led to lost cargo spaces.

One initial result of containerization was the need for dedicated container ships as the passenger-cargo ships of that era, the cruisers were not meant for the loading of container vans (although they can carry a few and loaded LOLO). Since our local volume was low, our shipping companies preferred not to order purpose-built container ships. Instead, the discovered path was just to convert general cargo ships into container ships. The needed conversion was actually minimal and since these ships were already equipped with cargo booms then it was easier for everything. Only, the booms needed to be more stout as in it has to have more lifting capacity because of the added weight of the steel of the container van. Container vans were handled LOLO or Lift-On, Lift Off.

With the coming of ROROs with its ramps and car decks starting in 1980, cargo handling became easier. Break-bulk cargo especially the heavier ones can now be handled by the forklifts and transferred to the car decks (which then became cargo decks also but not as cargo holds). Shipping companies have used forklifts before but mainly just in the ports. Now, the first ROROs also carried forklifts in the car decks and the stowing of container vans in the car decks of the ROROs began. These were mainly XEUs (Ten-Foot container vans) which can easily be handled by medium-sized forklifts. Still many of cargoes in the first ROROs were break-bulk.

Some liners of the 1980’s had cargo booms at the front of the ship while having RORO ramps at the stern like the “Zamboanga City” and the “Dona Virginia” of William Lines. It carried container vans at the front of the ship and those were handled LOLO while at the stern they loaded container vans. Actually, some big cruiser liners of the late 1970’s can carry container vans on their upper decks at the stern like the “Don Enrique” and “Don Eusebio” of Sulpicio Lines, the “Cagayan de Oro City” of William Lines and the “Don Claudio” of Negros Navigation”. It was handled LOLO by the cargo booms of those ships.

At the tail end of the 1970’s and at the start of the 1980’s what was prominent was the race of the leading liner shipping companies to acquire general cargo ships and convert it to container ships. Aboitiz Shipping Company was the early leader and they fielded thirteen container ships between 1976 and 1989. Their series was called the “Aboitiz Concarrier” and latter additions were called the “Aboitiz Superconcarrier” and “Aboitiz Megaconcarrier”. William Lines rolled out in the same period eight container ship plus two Cargo RORO ships which can also carry passengers. They named their series as the “Wilcon”. Sulpicio Lines was not to be outdone and they fielded fourteen and these were dubbed as “Sulpicio Container” or “Sulcon”.

In the same period, Lorenzo Shipping, a former major, also rolled out eleven container ship in a series called “Lorenzo Container” or “Lorcon”. Some of these were former general cargo ships of theirs. Sea Transport Company were also able to field eight with place name of their ports of call followed by “Transport” like “Davao Transport”. None of the other liner shipping companies which followed into containerization like Sweet Lines and Negros Navigation had half a dozen container ships. Instead, they began relying on their new RORO ship acquisitions but that was also done by Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and Gothong Lines.

The main effect of the rush to acquire container ships was the slowing down of the acquisition of passenger ships. Actually, this might even had an effect on their purchase of RORO passenger OR ROPAX ships. With the collapse of many shipping companies in the crisis decade of the 1980’s, this resulted in a lack of passenger ships at the end of that decade. But there were many container ships as in about sixty and that fleet pushed many shipping companies in the cargo trade out of business in the 1980’s. Two main factors pushed them into the precipice – the economic crisis which made it hard to acquire ships and the loss of patronage because the paradigm in cargo handling had changed. Break-bulk was now already marginalized and frowned upon. Shippers and traders have had enough of pilferage and goods damaged in transit.

With marginalization, the other cargo liner companies had more difficulty filling up their cargo holds. Voyages became fewer and sailing times ballooned. They became dead duck for the container vans loaded into the fast RORO liners which had fixed schedules. Soon they were on the way out or they had to move to tramper shipping where there are no fixed routes and schedules. During this period cargo liners were even included in the schedule boards of the passenger liners. Their only deficit compared to passenger liners was as cargo ships they had less speed. And since cargo is handled LOLO they also spent more time in the ports.

Now, long-distance break-bulk shipping is almost gone. It is only lively now in the regional routes like the routes originating from Cebu and Zamboanga. In many cases, places and routes they have already evolved into intermodal shipping – the use of trucks which are loaded into short-distance ROROs. In this mode the trucks are the new “containers” or “vessels”. Since that is in competition with container shipping, it is now container shipping which is beginning to be marginalized by the intermodal truck especially if it is supported by the cheap Cargo RORO LCT.

Things change. Always.


The M/S Don Claudio

In 1976, when Negros Navigation Company (Nenaco) felt the need for another liner they bought the “Okinoshima Maru” from Kansai Kisen KK and this became the M/S Don Claudio in their fleet. From a line of four brand-new liners starting with the “Dona Florentina” in 1965 to “Don Julio” in 1967, to “Don Vicente” in 1969 to the “Don Juan” in 1971, Negros Navigation was forced to buy second-hand because of the fast deteriorating value of the peso. This was no disgrace to Negros Navigation since when Martial Law was declared in the Philippines in 1972, no passenger liner shipping company was still able to buy brand-new.

The “Okinoshima Maru” was a cruiser ferry which means she was not a RORO. When she was built in 1966, the age of ROROs has not yet fully bloomed (it will come very soon in the era of the “Bypasses of the Sea” which started in the late 1960’s). Hence, she handled cargo by booms and she had these equipment fore and aft. Later, those cargo booms also handled container vans LOLO (Lift On, Lift Off). However, her early booms were not strong enough for 20-foot container vans. She mainly handled XEUs or the squarish 10-foot container vans. Her front boom had that characteristic A-frame which was rather rare.

The “Okinoshima Maru” was built by Sanoyas Shipbuilding Corporation or Sanoyasu of Japan in their Osaka yard. Her keel was laid in July of 1965 and she was completed in February of 1966. A steel-hulled ship, she had a raked stem and a cruiser stern, the common design combination of that cruiser era. She had two masts and two passenger decks originally. Her top deck superstructure then was mainly for the crew. The ship’s permanent ID was IMO 6603373. In Japan she was classed for open-ocean navigation which means routes to the outside of the four main Japan island and not just to the Inland Sea routes of Japan.

The ship was 92.6 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP) of 86.4 meters and 14.4 meters in extreme breadth and so her size was more or less equal of the fast cruisers being rolled out then here (except for some former European cruiser liners which have lengths of over 100 meters). Her original Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 2,721 tons but this later this rose this rose to 2,863 when scantling for open-air third-class accommodations were added at the top deck. She had a load capacity in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 1,950 tons. The ship’s depth was 8.4 meters which means she was more stable than the other liners of the Negros Navigation fleet. Well, her wider breath also helped in that department.

After internal renovations locally, she can already accommodate 895 passengers in different classes. That was about par with most of the fast cruisers of that era, the 1970’s. Later, her passenger capacity rose to 963 and her Net Register Tonnage (NRT) increased to 1,108 tons. That figure shows her internal revenue-generating space in terms of passengers and cargo. She was powered by a single Mitsui-B&W engine of 3,850 horsepower that was good enough for 18 knots. The company claimed that was still her speed here. This means she can be classified as a fast cruiser here. She was given the call sign DZOC in the Philippines.

In those days, the routes of Negros Navigation from Manila was only Bacolod and Iloilo and so she did those routes together with the other fast cruisers of the company like the “Dona Florentina”, the “Don Julio” and the “Don Juan”. For the two routes which was more or less equidistant, she took 22 hours of sailing. For passenger ingress and egress, she had that famous sliding door at both sides of the ship. It was a contraption that was reassuring when seas are rough. Her superstructure extended to the side of the ship and there are no outside passageways. She then sailed practically trouble-free with no controversy for the next twenty years.

In the middle of the 1990’s, when Negros Navigation began receiving new RORO liners, the “Don Claudio” began serving Roxas City (Culasi port) aside from the routes to Bacolod and Iloilo. When more RORO liners arrived for Negros Navigation, she and fellow cruiser “Don Julio” was assigned the shorter routes to the small ports of northern Panay. Initially, she held the the Manila-Roxas City-Estancia (Iloilo) route. A little later, she also held the Manila-Dumaguit (Aklan)-Roxas City route of “Don Julio” in competition with the bigger “Our Lady of Naju” of WG&A. Incidentally, both were cruisers. And a little later again she pioneered the Manila-Estancia-San Carlos City (Negros Occidental) route.

She was then just sailing at 16 knots which was still somewhat decent (that was just about the speed of “SuperFerry 3”, “Our Lady of Medjugorje” and “Our Lady of Sacred Heart”, the “Zambonga City”, “Tacloban Princess”, “Masbate I” and better than “Maynilad”, “Cebu Princess”, “Surigao Princess” and “Palawan Princess”). Of course she cannot match the newer, faster RORO liners. In her whole career with Negros Navigation, she only held short and medium distance routes which was the equivalent of an interport call of rival shipping companies which means a sailing time of less than a day. San Carlos City was the longest route she held for Negros Navigation.

One night when I was aboard a liner on the way to Mindanao (sorry, I can’t remember the name of the ship now) I was surprised to see her in Dumaguete port. I asked around and found out she was doing or Negros Navigation was trying a Bacolod-Dumaguete-Cagayan de Oro route. I wished then she would succeed as no shipping company tried that route before and it might have been a valid route although Negros Navigation was already doing the Bacolod-Cagayan de Oro route with their liners from Manila. That shunting to minor routes was the fate then of the old cruiser liners of Negros Navigation. It seemed they had nowhere to go and nobody would still buy cruisers then except for the ship breakers.

She, together with “Don Julio” and not-so-reliable-anymore “Santa Ana” (later renamed “Super Shuttle Ferry 8”) was transferred to Jensen Shipping Corporation which was an attempt to try to fit former liners into extended overnight routes. It was with this company that she was tried on a Cebu-Bacolod-Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route. Well, this route looks like a liner route to me with its distance and many ports of call. I liked it then when shipping companies will still try to find a route somehow for their old ferries (and that is a reason I have a dislike for one particular shipping company which mastered in the early selling ships to the breakers).

I cannot gather exactly when “Don Claudio” stopped sailing. A database said she was laid up in 2009 but I think it might have happened earlier than that. There was even a report she was broken up as early as 2003. She is no longer in the MARINA database and nor is Jensen Shipping Corporation reflected to still have ships or operating. In almost all likelihood, she is already in shipping heaven.



[Photo Credit: Ray Smith                                                                                                                                 [Research Support: Gorio Belen]                                                                                                                   [Database Support: Jun Marquez/Mike Baylon/PSSS]