The Biggest Shipping Company Based in Mindanao (Part 1)

Many people will think that the biggest shipping company in Mindanao is 2GO, the only liner company left in the country with its big ships with large Gross Tonnages, one of the measures of a shipping company’s size. Maybe some will also argue that it has to be the Chelsea Logistics Corp. which controls a slew of shipping companies now including 2GO but I disagree because those shipping companies are not necessarily based in Mindanao. How can one argue that Starlite Ferries or Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. are Mindanao shipping companies? That argument will be more absurd for 2GO itself as it mainly operates out of Manila and Cebu. It just happened that the 2GO and Chelsea Logistics Chairman, the now very prominent Dennis Uy happens to be from Davao where the current President also happens to hail from.

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The biggest shipping company of Mindanao is actually the Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga City founded by Feliciano N. Tan Sr. Now, they happen to be very low-key, one of the reasons why only a few has heard of them except in their own turf. Another key reason is actually very few especially from Luzon and Visayas have ever been to Zamboanga City because of inordinate fear of reported violence, jihadis or even plain Muslims that was inculcated by their families and exacerbated by the media. Actually, many Christians will rather fly to Hongkong than go to Zamboanga (well, many local Christians even fear going to Zamboanga Port). And lastly, most people when thinking of shipping do not bother to understand that shipping is not only about ferries. Shipping is actually about all kinds of crafts including freighters of which Aleson Shipping Lines has many and so the company seems smaller to not-a-few. And those are the reasons why this particular shipping line skips the public consciousness even though it is actually bigger than the Cebu-based overnight ferry companies.

The first vessel acknowledged by Aleson Shipping Corporation was the Estrella del Mar which was a cruiser ship with a clipper stem (sadly, she was recently gone) and was given the IMO Number 8945220. She was a local-built vessel in 1975 by the Varadero de Recodo in Zamboanga City and she was 38.1 meters in length and 230 in Gross Tonnage (a measure I am loathe to use because there are a lot of under-declarations for “considerations” in the country and so I emphasize the length more which is almost always true and people can relate more to that than the Gross Tonnage or GT). The Estrella del Mar originally sailed at 10.5 knots derived from her single Yanmar engine of 850 horsepower.

Estrella del Mar

Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

The Estrella del Mar was originally owned by and registered to Feliciano N. Tan, Sr. and was later transferred when the company came into existence. The Aleson Shipping Lines is owned and controlled by the Tan family of Zamboanga City and officially they declare their founding to be October 1, 1976. It was a saying in the Port of Zamboanga that the Tan family will never let go of the Estrella del Mar as it was their ”lucky” ship but it seems obsolescence finally caught up with her as it is hard to sail now without a respectable amount of cargo because fuel prices is high and the design of the vessel as a cruiser does not afford much cargo. The Estrella del Mar was the only local-built ferry of the Aleson Shipping Lines.

The Tan family was already in the goods trading and distribution business even before they got involved in the shipping business that it seems that the latter was an adjunct to the former when they started. In the process of their growth they overtook many Zamboanga shipping companies which started way before them like the Sampaguita Shipping Corporation which was once the biggest in Zamboanga and Mindanao (it is gone now, a victim of over-expansion), the shipping company of the Atilano family which later moved to Cebu and became more known as the Rose Shipping Company (it lost there and is gone now too), the Magnolia Shipping Corporation, the Ever Lines and the Basilan Shipping/Basilan Lines (which is also gone now). It also had contemporaries like the SKT Shipping Lines and the A. Sakaluran Shipping Corp. (this company had fastcrafts as well as traditional ships and Moro boats) which are also both gone now too. Those are just among the most prominent ones as there are many more small and less-prominent shipping companies in Zamboanga and that includes the operators of the many Moro boats (the Mindanao version of the motor boats or lancha/batel of Luzon and the Visayas) which are patterned after the Arab dhow.

Many of those big and small Zamboanga shipping companies are gone now, victims of the surplus of bottoms in the late 1990’s when the incentives of President Fidel V. Ramos on shipping plus the business optimism after the RAM coups were over resulted in overcapacity and brutal fare wars. Additionally, the barter trade of Zamboanga was already down and restricted. The Asian Crisis of 1997 also resulted in lower growth and soon the disastrous “Erap” presidency came. Among the prominent Zamboanga shipping companies, it is only the Magnolia Shipping Corporation and Ever Lines that are still in existence but they are no longer growing. Meanwhile, the Aleson Shipping Lines continued its growth  and acquisitions although they had missteps too like when they acquired big ferries (the Lady Mary Joy and Lady Mary Joy 2) and when they ventured in Luzon and the Visayas which came to naught (as there was also a surplus of bottoms there).

I have noticed that in shipping the companies that exhibit continuous growth are those whose families are not dependent on shipping but have solid core businesses elsewhere. This is true for the Lua family of Cebu which controls Oceanjet but have many other businesses including their famed bottled water business (the “Nature Spring” brand). That is also true for the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation combine of Bicol where the principal partner happens to have the biggest trading firm in the region and the other partners have their owns businesses too. The Poseidon LCTs of Concrete Solutions, Inc. and Primary Trident Marine Solutions Inc. of the Liu family from Cebu is also another example of one into shipping but the core businesses are elsewhere.

One notable thing I noticed about Mindanao is the other regions were not able to nurture big shipping concerns. Look at the row of Highly Urbanized Cities (HUCs or cities with a population of over 200,000) in the island. Cagayan de Oro has no big shipping corporation and the same is also true for Butuan. Ditto for Cotabato City and Iligan City. General Santos City is only big in fishing fleets and shipyards and that is understandable because of their access to the Celebes Sea fishing grounds. If Davao City was able to produce any, it is only the Chelsea Shipping Corp. which followed and supplied its pioneering sister company, the Phoenix Petroleum. Even the key gateway of Surigao City has no big shipping company either and Ozamis City was only able to produce Daima Shipping Corporation with its fleet of small double-ended ferries in Panguil Bay. Now, Zamboanga City is a gateway too and there are many islands that she supplies, the reason why there are many shipping lines in the city. The need for connection to these islands, Aleson Shipping Lines was able to exploit successfully and for a long time now.

The second ferry of Aleson Shipping Lines came in 1984 when they purchased from Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) the second Dona Conchita (as differentiated from the original lengthened ex-“F”ship Dona Conchita which was the original flagship of the company). This was a cruiser passenger-cargo ship which they renamed into the Aleson Zamboanga and later as the Aleson 3. This was a ship built in 1963 (the same year as Dona Paz (when ROROs – Roll-on, Roll-off ships — were not yet in vogue) by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the Taishu Maru with IMO Number 6402420. She had a Length Over-all (LOA) of 59.3 meters, about the same size of the cruiser ships of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. when it was just starting, to put the size in context. This ship literally has longer legs (and for that her 14 knots from a single Hitachi engine of 1,500 horsepower comes handy). It can go to places that the Estrella del Mar can’t and also carry more cargo. Moreover,the passengers have more comfort as the ship is air-conditioned. Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. sold this cruiser ship because they were already converting then into a pure RORO fleet, the first local shipping company to do so. Later, Aleson Shipping sold this ferry to Indonesia.

It is understandable if for a time after acquiring the Aleson Zamboanga that Aleson Shipping Lines did not invest yet in additional ferries. The period of the 1980’s was an very unsettled one as financial and political crises were dominant in the national and economic life of the country. That was the fact of life in the country in that decade when many businesses even doubted if they will even survive. And I would even say that the purchase of Aleson Shipping Lines of their next ferry in 1990 was still a continuation of the 1980’s business malaise and the general conservatism then in investments.

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Photo by Hans Schaefer

The ship, the first Kristel Jane was just a small but beautiful ferry at 33.0 meters LOA (Length Over-all) with a design speed of 11 knots from a single Hanshin engine. She was built by Shin Kochi Jyuko in Kochi, Japan in 1979 as the Orange No. 2 with the IMO Number 7926980. A short-distance ferry which looks like a fastcraft or a Medium Speed Craft (MSC), this vessel had a passenger capacity of 386 and was mainly used for the Basilan route of the company.  However, Aleson Shipping did not keep her very long because in 2000 this first Kristel Jane was sold to Indonesia and became the Indomas 3 (by that year it also appeared that Aleson Shipping already had a small excess of ferries already).

It was only in 1994 when there were already incentives from the Fidel V. Ramos administration (actually in Cory Aquino’s administration we had a shortage of ships brought about by the financial crisis of the closing years of the Ferdinand E. Marcos administration when inflation was rampant) when Aleson Shipping Lines made a big move in the ferry business. This was also about the same time when other shipping companies nationwide made their moves too as business optimism was already rising then as the “Gringo” coups and the paralyzing black-outs were already over. In this year, Aleson Shipping Lines acquired two ferries and that suddenly doubled their then-small ferry fleet.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

This ferry duo was led by the Danica Joy which seemed to have been named after a granddaughter of the founder who has a hand in the company now. The Danica Joy was built as the Nakajima in Japan in 1972 by the Nakamura Shipbuilding & Engineering Works in Yanai, Japan and she had the IMO Number 7852414. This ferry is bigger than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 48.0 meters LOA and so she has two passenger decks and two engines. She was the ship used by Aleson Shipping Lines in opening their Sandakan, Malaysia route. For a time her twin Daihatsu engines of 2,000 horsepower which was sufficient for 14 knots when new became unreliable but Aleson Shipping Lines opened the checkbooks and now she is a reliable ship again. Right now, the Danica Joy is already the oldest ship remaining in the fleet of Aleson Shipping Lines by age (both ferries and container ships) and date of acquisition as the older ship by acquisition Aleson 3 and Kristel Jane are already gone from the fleet as were the older cargo ships of the company. The Danica Joy is the long-distance ferry replacement for the Aleson III which foundered in Cebu in 1994. She has a sister ship in the country which is the Lite Ferry 6 of Lite Ferries and she was also the former Salve Juliana of the MBRS Lines of Romblon.

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS

The other ferry acquisition by Aleson Shipping Lines in 1994 was the Neveen which was smaller than the Danica Joy. The Neveen was a cruiser ship and she was built by Maebata Shipbuilding in Sasebo, Japan in 1975. This small ferry with the IMO Number 7509976 which was originally the Mishima Maru No.3 had a length of only 35.0 meters and was also used for the short Basilan route. A basic, short-distance ferry, Neveen has only one passenger deck and a single 1,000-horsepower Daihatsu engine which was good for 13 knots when new (with a “thinner” Breadth or Beam a cruiser will be faster than a RORO of the same length and engine). In the last few years of her life, the Neveen‘s engine had been sickly and she spent most of her time laid up in Varadero de Recodo and for sale. She is gone now from the fleet of Aleson Shipping and maybe they no longer re-engined her as she was obsolescent already as she is a cruiser ship.

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Photo by Karl Sabuga of PSSS

In 1995, the company bought a small RORO of 32.3 meters length and she was unusual for a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO as she had stern ramps (versus the normal bow ramp). This was the Alex Craig which was built in 1972 by the Izumi Shipbuiding in Moji, Japan as the Himeshima Maru No. 1, a ferry to a small island off the Japanese main island of Kyushu. This ferry was the smallest of Aleson Shipping up to that date with Gross Tonnage of only 197. She was also the smallest in passenger capacity in the fleet as she was only good for 154 persons. Besides, the Alex Craig also had the smallest engine in the fleet with only 750 horsepower from its single Yanmar Marine engine. However, she was not the slowest in the fleet as her design speed is 12 knots. This small ferry was one of the ships brought by Aleson in its expansion outside of Mindanao, specifically in Marinduque. When they lost there, they sold the Alex Craig and she was acquired by the Davemyr Shipping of Camiguin where she is now sailing as the Dona Pepita. Her sister in the country is also sailing in Camiguin, the ferry Yuhum of Philstone Shipping.

1996 was the year when Aleson Shipping Lines acquired a rather-big RORO for multi-day voyages that is not confined to Mindanao. This is the 84.3-meter Lady Mary Joy with a Gross Tonnage of 2,300 , the first ship of the company which is over 1,000 GT and the biggest ship of the company up to that time. This ship was used by Aleson Shipping in their long Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan-Zamboanga-Sandakan route, the longest route of the company ever. Supposedly, this route gives Central Visayas an access to the Sabah market in Malaysia. I thought this was part of the BIMP-EAGA concept being pushed then by the President Ramos in preparation for the ASEAN Free Trade Area. However, the President failed to define correctly what is “free trade” and it just remained as “restricted trade” and so the route was not successful in the long run. This ferry was also used by Aleson Shipping in their Zamboanga-Manila route.

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Photo by Chief Ray Smith of PSSS

The first Lady Mary Joy was a ship built by Taguma Shipbuilding in Innoshima, Japan in 1971 as the Freesia Maru of the ferry company Tosai Kisen KK of Japan and she was given the IMO Number 7101786. In 1986, she became the Happiness No. 2 of the Bright Eagle International Inc. of Panama. In the Philippines the ship was refitted to be a multi-day liner, the first ship of Aleson Shipping in that classification. The Lady Mary Joy was the first ship of the company with a Net Tonnage (NT) of over 1,000 (at 1,213) and the first ferry of the company with a passenger capacity of over 1,000 (at 1,116 persons). She was also the fastest ferry of Aleson Shipping then with a design speed of 17 knots coming from a pair of Niigata engines with a total of 6,000 horsepower. Sadly, this remarkable ship is gone now.

In 1997, Aleson Shipping Lines acquired a ship they will use to battle Sampaguita Shipping Company and SKT Shipping in what was thought of then as a premier route in Western Mindanao, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route which offered an alternative to bumpy, dusty and sometimes dangerous land route. This was the Ferry Taiko which they then renamed into the Nikel Princely. This ship is actually a RORO with just a small stern ramp. She was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in their Hiroshima yard in Japan in 1979 with the IMO Number 7900455 with an original 12.5 knots top speed from a pair of Daihatsu engines with a total of only 2,000 horsepower, the reason why she became a slow ship in the future. Nikel Princely is only 49.0 meters in length and she has two passenger decks. She had a passenger capacity of 400 which was accommodated in bunks as the route is an overnight ferry route of about eight hours sailing time.

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Taken from pagadian.com

The Zamboanga-Pagadian route had the best Zamboanga ferries in the late 1990’s as the Nikel Princely battled the Sampaguita Ferry 1 (the former Tacloban City of William Lines) and Sampaguita Ferry 2 (the former Iligan City of  William Lines) of the Sampaguita Shipping Lines and the Pagadian City (the former Madrigal Masbate of Madrigal Shipping) of SKT Shipping. However, in due time, the ferries in the Zamboanga-Pagadian route all lost when the Zamboanga-Pagadian highway was finally paved. I was not surprised by this development as it has been shown in the past and everywhere in the country that in parallel routes the ship cannot compete with the ubiquitous buses and trucks which depart at all times of the day and night, could even be cheaper and it can be hailed right or deliver goods at the gates of the homes of the passengers or shippers. For a time, the Nikel Princely was laid up or was serving as a reliever until the Roble Shipping Corp. of Cebu purchased her in 2009 and she became the Blessed Stars. Later, she was passed on to the new shipping company Theresian Stars and she tried to come back to Zamboanga as the Asian Stars in 2016 doing the Jolo route until she was acquired back by Roble Shipping and she became the Ocean Stars. The sister ship in the Philippines of the Nikel Princely was the former Filipinas Surigao of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. which became the Asian Stars II of the new shipping company Theresians Stars that is plying the Zamboanga-Jolo route.

1998 was a big year for Aleson Shipping Linesas they made their biggest-ever expansion in their history when the acquired four (!) ferries. By this year, it seems that the Aleson Shipping was already the biggest shipping company in Mindanao, arguably, displacing the old Number 1, the Sampaguita Shipping Company. Both companies had many ferries now as well as cargo ships (as both operated cargo ships) but one purchase made Aleson Shipping Lines and that was the acquisition of the Lady Mary Joy 2, the biggest ferry the company has ever acquired and which was as big as some of the smaller liners plying the Manila-Cebu route. Sampaguita Shipping had no ship to match this new flagship of Aleson Shipping which was mainly used for the Zamboanga-Manila route of the company where it battled the liners of WG&A, Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation Company.

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Photo by Toshihiko Mikami of PSSS

The Lady Mary Joy 2 was a full-pledged liner and so Aleson Shipping became one of the handful of shipping companies in modern times to operate liners from Manila (and Cebu overnight ferries can’t claim that distinction nor did they have ferries of this size). This ship was not small (she is even bigger than some Manila liners) as she really liner-sized at 122.0 meters length with a Gross Tonnage of 3,330 with a passenger capacity of 850 persons. In size and external lines she was much like the heralded Sweet RORO of Sweet Lines (but she was actually marginally longer). The Lady Mary Joy 2 by built by Fukuoka Zosen in Fukuoka, Japan in 1974 as the Akitsu Maru of Kyodo Kisen KK and she possessed the IMO Number 7402025. Her design speed is a match for liners of her size at 18.5 knots as she had 12,000 horsepower from a pair of Niigata engines. This liner is gone now, broken up, as Aleson Shipping was not able to hold on to their Manila route as there were plenty of liners during her time.

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Stephanie Marie by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Another acquisition in 1998 was a ship that firmed up the position of the company in Western Mindanao shipping and is still a great asset to the company until today. This is the Stephanie Marie which was the former Marima III in Japan. This ship was built in Japan by tne Kanda Shipbuiding Company in their Kure yard. The length of the ship is 63.2 meters, not unlike many Cebu overnight ferries but she is built as a short-distance ferry with seats which means she has a lot of space and capacity and before the coming of Stephanie Marie 2 she dwarfed then all the ferries going to Basilan. This vessel has two-and-a-half passenger decks with a Tourist Class in the former lounge of the ship which even houses a small a small office. The Stephanie Marie was built in 1979 with the IMO Number 8427278 and she is powered by a pair of Daihatsu engines with a total of 3,200 horsepower giving her design speed was 15 knots. By acquisition she is now the second oldest extant ferry in the fleet of Aleson Shipping Lines. For a long time now this ferry is the mainstay of the company in the Isabela, Basilan route.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Another vessel that was also not small was the Danica Joy 2 which was refitted as an overnight ferry and which can also do longer voyages as in as far as Sandakan, Malaysia and as such she has the accommodations similar to a multi-day liner (she did that route when the liners of Aleson Shipping were already gone). This vessel is about the same size as the Stephanie Marie at 67.2 meters length and she had two passenger decks equipped with bunks. The Danica Joy 2 was built by Nakamura Shipbuilding & Engineering Works in Yanai, Japan in 1982. She was formerly the Orange Hope of the Shikoku Ferry in Japan and she had the permanent ID IMO 8135253. This ferry had a sustained speed of 16 knots when coming from two Daihatsu engines with a total of 4,000 horsepower. In 201-, she became unbalanced while unloading and she capsized while docked in Zamboanga port and now she is already gone from the fleet of Aleson Shipping Lines. She has a sister ship in the country, the Asia Philippines of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines of Cebu which was now sold to George & Peter Lines, also of Cebu.

Not all of Aleson Shipping Lines acquisitions in 1998 were big or relatively big ships. One was a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of only 32.0 meters in Length Over-all (LOA) which is the Kristel Jane 2. This ferry was built by the Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works in Nagasaki, Japan as the Himawari in 1974 with the IMO Number 7396020.  When Kristel Jane 2 was acquired, she one of the five small ferries in the fleet of the Aleson Shipping Lines with the second-smallest passenger capacity at 188 persons, next only to the Alex Craig. However, this ferry had the slowest design speed in the fleet at only 10 knots. But unlike other short-distance ferry-ROROs, the Kristel Jane 2 had two engines and two screws. She had a total of 800 horsepower from her Mitsubishi engines.

After these big acquisitions, Aleson Shipping Lines went into a relative hiatus of four years as far as ferry additions are concerned. Acquiring the four previously mentioned ferries might have brought financial pressure to the company but it seems there is more than to that. In this period there was obviously a surplus of bottoms already in the country plus the acquisition of liner ferries was not panning out well for the company. Moreover, the Luzon and Visayas forays of Aleson Shipping Lines were not doing well also. The emergence of SRN Fastcrafts which is better known as Weesam Express plus the acquisition of fastcrafts by the A. Sakaluran Shipping Corp. (which also possessed conventional crafts) also put pressure on the company until most of these fastcrafts were moved into the Visayas and also Luzon in the case of A. Sakaluran.

(To be continued….)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Ferry MV Tacloban City of William Lines

When I first saw the MV Tacloban City of William Lines in the late 1980’s, I did not think much of her. She looked small and having ridden small ferries already I thought she had not that much to offer. Among liners then in the North Harbor she was among the smallest already in the league of the MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The MV Don Julio of Negros Navigation certainly looked bigger. Of course, there is no comparison to the other ferries then in North Harbor except for maybe those owned by MBRS Lines, the MV Salve Juliana and MV Romblom Bay which were actually overnight ships from Manila.

If there is something that makes the MV Tacloban City look small it is because of her thin beam. ROROs even though shorter than her like the Moreta Shipping ROROs in North Harbor like the MV Nikki and the small MV Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines looked bigger or equal because of “fatter” beams and of course ROROs for the same length are generally higher because RORO decks and ramps have to be tall enough for the vehicles being loaded including container vans mounted on trailers.5556051110_863ca5e32f_b

(Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

Later, when I was able to sail with the MV Tacloban City as the MV Sampaguita Ferry in Zamboanga City, I found out she had more to offer that I previously thought. She was a liner after all before and she retained all her amenities even though she is just being used then as an overnight ship to Pagadian City. Like her fleet mate MV Iligan City, she has practically everything except that it seems everything is miniaturized and one is thrown back imagining the liners in the past when they were still smaller and shipping companies were trying to maximize passenger capacity for the growing population and passengers of the country.

The MV Tacloban City came to the country in 1975 and she was a cruiser. In those times there were no RORO Passenger (ROPAX) ships yet and it was still the time of the cruisers. Cruisers were “thinner” the ROPAXes for the latter need the bigger beam to balance its taller superstructure. Cruisers meanwhile were designed to slice through the water and hence they were thinner. They thus had only one engine and one propeller compared to the usual two of the ROPAXes for the same length. Sitting lower on the water, cruisers tend to be more stable. However, they tend to rock a lot in port when their booms handle cargo especially if it is a container van.

When the MV Tacloban City came to the country she was only the second fast cruiser liner of William Lines after the legendary MV Cebu City which arrived brand-new from Japan. The MV Tacloban City was a second-hand vessel, a recognition of the changed economic circumstances of the country when the economy and the exchange rate worsened significantly starting the first half of the 1970’s which made acquisition of brand-new ships impossible already for it already cost a lot. Furthermore, credit and availability of foreign currency were already tight during those times especially after the Oil Shock of 1973.

The MV Tacloban City was a ferry built in 1962 by Sanoyasu Dockyard in Osaka, Japan for Oshima Unyu. The ferry was then known in Japan as the MV Naminoue Maru. She is of steel hull with raked stem and a cruiser stern and two masts (boom looks like a third mast, however). The ship was assigned the IMO Number 5246295 later.

The ferry had a length over-all (LOA) of 91.1 meters, a beam of 12.8 meters, an original gross register tonnage (GRT) of 2,244 tons and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 1,171 tons. She was powered by a single Mitsubishi engine of 5,800 horsepower and her original sustained top speed was 19 knots.

This ferry was launched in December of 1974 and completed in March of 1975 and she was used in the route to Oshima Island southeast of the main island of Honshu before she became part of A” Lines (which means she must have been designed for stability). William Lines acquired the MV Naminoue Maru for P16 million which was roughly $2.2 million dollars then.

With her coming to the Philippines additional structures were built on her like what is usually done to increase the passenger capacity and to build additional amenities. In conversion to gross tonnage (GT) the cubic size went down to 1,965. The new net tonnage was 767, the depth was 4.7 meters and the deadweight tonnage (DWT) was 1,173 tons.

The formal inauguration of the ship was on October 14, 1975. The ship’s name was a homage to the city she will serve which was the new style then already of William Lines to name their fast cruisers for the city they will serve (as compared before when their ex-”FS” ships were named after the sons and daughters of the founder William Chiongbian).

1975 1015 Cheetah of the Sea_MV Tacloban City

(Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

The ship initially had three passenger decks with a passenger capacity of 1,018 person. With that, she was one of the earliest passenger ships in the country to breach the 1,000-passenger capacity mark. Later, a half-deck for passengers was built at the bridge level and increasing her passenger capacity to 1,274 persons.

Upon fielding in the country, the MV Tacloban City was used in the Catbalogan and Tacloban route from Manila. This was the next foray then of William Lines in Eastern Visayas after an earlier putative attempt using the MV Elizabeth, an old former “FS” ship without air-conditioning which was heavily outmatched by the better competition like the MV Sweet Grace, MV Sweet Rose, both of Sweet Lines and the MV Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lineswhich all had air-conditioning (there were also lesser passenger-cargo ships without air-conditioning to Catbalogan and Tacloban then). This was the time when there was no road and intermodal connections yet to Eastern Visayas from Luzon, the time when liners were still the king (or better yet queen) to the region.

When the MV Tacloban City was fielded in the Eastern Visayas route suddenly William Lines had parity with the better competition. In terms of size, the MV Tacloban City was just about the size of the better competition and in amenities, accommodations, food and passenger service they might have been in rough parity. What her advantage then was she was the speediest among the liners with air-conditioning to Catbalogan and Tacloban and William Lines harped on that by calling her the “Cheetah of the Sea”. Cheetahs of course are known for their bursts of speed. And in the direct route to Tacloban, the MV Tacloban City sailed the 363-nautical mile route in only 21 hours including the slow passage in San Juanico Strait with its many shallows and sandbars. For a long time MV Tacloban City’s cruising speed was 17.5 knots which can match even some of the liners of today.

The MV Tacloban City served the two Eastern Visayas cities for more than 16 years, one of the ships to serve a route the longest straight and long after her initial competitors had long been gone from the route and even during the time when the intermodal buses and trucks had already been rolling to Samar and Leyte through the short-distance ferry-ROROs traversing San Bernardino Strait.

She was only removed when MV Masbate I took over her route and she was transferred to the Manila-Ozamis route via Pandan of Antique. A little later she was again shunted to the more minor Manila-Dipolog (which is actually Dapitan) route via Batan, Aklan, an ignominy often suffered by older liners. She was holding this route when the William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) merger took place on January 1, 1996.

When that merger came the MV Tacloban City was relegated to the regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation or CFC where she was assigned the Cebu-Roxas City route. That route did not last and the next year, 1997, she was offered for sale along with many other cruiser ships (along with other ROPAXes) of WG&A and Cebu Ferries Corporation.

In the same year the expanding Sampaguita Shipping Corporation of Zamboanga City snapped her up and she was fielded in the Zamboanga City-Pagadian route with almost no modification. She was renamed into MV Sampaguita Ferry but she is generally regarded as MV Sampaguita Ferry 1 with the acronym “SF1” (and I wondered if WG&A ever complained). It is here in this route that I was able to sail her in 1998 with my late mother after visiting my brother in Zamboanga City. We were in Cabin and though small by the cabins of the day it was still respectable.

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(Photo by Britz Salih)

I was not able to roam the ship much as we were already tired and I have to tend to my elderly mother. That was the time when Zamboanga port still had no expansion and so many motor boats were using that port (along with so many small cruiser ships as there were still a lot of shipping companies still existing then in Zamboanga). We were only able to board near 11pm and with great difficulty. Only the bow portion of the ship was able to dock due to non-availability of wharf space and we passengers have to clamber over the ship not via the gangplank but over the bow through a ladder and that was difficult for my mother. The long wait at the port even added to our tiredness. And that Cabin which was among the best at least among the Zamboanga local ships was a welcome respite.

Even at a very late departure because the ship was not able to leave immediately as cargo still has to be loaded, we still arrived at a reasonable 8am in Pagadian. We had a good night’s sleep and actually we were already asleep when the ship left port. I had no camera then but before leaving port I took a long look at her capturing in my mind her lines and stance. I did not know that will be the last time I will see the former MV Tacloban City.

Not long after, Sampaguita Shipping Corporation (SSC) ran into financial trouble not entirely of her own creation. The Zamboanga-Pagadian highway improved when before it was more of a bumpy and dusty ride with danger from bandits, the reason why some prefer the more expensive ship especially the wealthy (and that is why there is patronage for the Cabin class that started from the MV Lady Helen of SKT Shipping. More trucks rolled too and slowly the cargo and the passengers of the Zamboanga City-Pagadian ships started to evaporate.

With its new ships financed by bank loans and with revenues drying, Sampaguita Shipping went belly up and her mortgaged ships were seized by the banks including the MV Sampaguita Ferry and she was anchored. Later, she disappeared along with the former MV Iligan City, also of William Lines before. Tale in Zamboanga City says the two sailed for Cebu City for breaking but I doubt the story. The two could have easily sailed south to meet their fates with the ship cutters. By that time there were no more buyers of cruiser ships anymore as they were already obsolete for most routes.

In international maritime databases there is no information on the final fate of the former MV Tacloban City.

[Note: There is another ship, a tanker with exactly the same name as this cruiser ferry and co-existed at the same time with her which is linked to ignominy as she was the ship that rammed the MS Don Juan, the flagship then of Negros Navigation. That happened in the night of April 22, 1980 in Tablas Strait. I mentioned this not to rake up old memories that should have been left in peace but to avoid any confusion and a clarification that this cruiser ferry is not involved in that horrible accident which claimed over a thousand lives.]