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….)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle for the Southern Mindanao Ports After The War And Before The Era of RORO Liners

Discussing this topic, the author wishes to clarify that the discussion will be limited to the period after World War II. There are not enough research materials yet before the war and in that earlier period Southern Mindanao was not yet that economically important to the country since the great wave of migration to the region only happened starting in the 1950’s and then peaking in the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Talking of Southern Mindanao ports, these consisted mainly of Davao, General Santos (or Dadiangas) and Cotabato (which is actually Parang or Polloc port located in another town) and to some extent also Pagadian and Kabasalan in earlier times and also Mati and Bislig. Since ships generally used the western approach, inadvertently Zamboanga port will be included in this since all ships to Southern Mindanao port using the western approach will use that as an intermediate stop since it just lies along the route and it has a good passenger and cargo volume.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

After World War II, shipping to Southern Mindanao boomed because it was the “new frontier” of the country. There was great migration by Christians from other parts of the country and this was encouraged and supported by the government to ease the “land pressure” in Luzon and Visayas which was the fuel then for the land unrest (read: Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid, Sakdalista movement, Hukbalahap, etc.). The land of Mindanao was being opened through the building of roads and the bounty of the land and the forests were being exploited (without asking the say-so of the native peoples and that fueled the unrest of the latter decades; the Luzon land unrest was “solved” to be replaced by Mindanao unrest and war – what an irony and tragedy!). And so people and goods needed to be transported and in such a situation where “ships come where there is cargo” there was a battle for the Southern Mindanao ports among the local shipping companies. Davao was the primary route and port of Southern Mindanao and almost invariably the Davao ships will also drop anchor in Dadiangas (General Santos City).

At the outset, it was Compania Maritima which led the pack to Southern Mindanao after World War II as she was the biggest liner shipping company then with the most ships, half of which were big by local standards (that means a length of about 100 meters). The company possessed ex-“C1-M-AV1” surplus ships as compensation by the US Government for their ships lost during the war and also big cargo-passenger ships from Europe while the competition had no better than the small ex-“FS” ships from the US Army which have to seek shelter when the seas begin to roil.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Among the Compania Maritima competitors to the Southern Mindanao ports in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), Manila Steamship Company, De la Rama Steamship, William Lines Inc. and Escano Lines. Most of the liner shipping companies of the day then shirked from Southern Mindanao routes because it was taxing on the fleet as the ships needed two weeks for the entire voyage. So just to be able to offer a weekly schedule, two ships of the fleet must be devoted to a Southern Mindanao route.

It was Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), being backed by Everett Steamship of the United States, which was more competitive against Compania Maritima as it also had ex-“C1-M-AV1” and ex-“Type N3” ships. PSNC was a venture between Everett Steamship and Aboitiz Shipping (and later with the end of “Parity Rights”, it passed on to the latter). Manila Steamship Co. was competitive, too since it also had a big fleet. However, this company quit shipping after the explosion and fire that hit their flagship “Mayon” in 1955. Meanwhile, De la Rama Steamship even quit earlier to concentrate on international shipping and being an agents after some local issues.

The year that Manila Steamship quit shipping, the new liner company Carlos A. Go Thong & Company joined the Southern Mindanao battle, too. In the mid-1950’s, with some shake-out in the shipping industry, there were less competitors and ships in this decade (because some really old ships have already quit along with some very small ones). It should be noted, however, that there were ocean-going liners that were originating from Southern Mindanao that goes to Manila first before proceeding to Japan and the USA. Some of those that provided that kind of service were Everett Steamship and Compania Maritima.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the 1960’s, passenger-cargo ships from Europe that were bigger than the ex-“FS” ships began to arrive in the Philippines and many of these were fielded to the Southern Mindanao routes. Among the users of that type were Go Thong and William Lines. Go Thong was also able to acquire the big World War II surplus “C1-A” ships like the “Manila Bay” and “Subic Bay”. Compania Maritima, however, bought brand-new liners and chartered big reparations cargo-passenger ships from the government-owned National Development Corporation (NDC) and so they held on to their lead in the Southern Mindanao routes in this decade. Meanwhile, Everett/PSNC was not far behind and they even used in Southern Mindanao their new liners from Japan, the “Elcano” and the “Legazpi”. Additionally, there was a new entrant in the late 1960’s, the ambitious Sweet Lines which was one of the beneficiaries of the quitting of General Shipping Company of local routes (the other was Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

At the start of the 1970’s, Compania Maritima was still ruling the Southern Mindanao routes. But several very interesting developments happened in this decade. First, the big Go Thong/Universal Shipping which already exceeded Compania Maritima in size had broken into three shipping companies and Sulpicio Lines Incorporated, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation emerged (until 1979 the operation of the latter two were joint). In a few years time, however, Sulpicio Lines grew fast and proved to be a strong competitor. In this decade, it was already slowly becoming obvious that Compania Maritima was losing steam especially as they regularly lost ships in storms. William Lines then was in a race with Sulpicio Lines to dislodge Compania Maritima from its perch. Everett Steamship meanwhile bowed out because of the end of “Parity Rights” of the Americans (and thus they are no longer allowed to do business as a Philippine “national”) and PSNC (their partnership with the Aboitizes) was merged with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the latter became the surviving entity. But with no new ships, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation bowed out of Southern Mindanao liner service. However, the combined Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines (CAGLI) and Sweet Lines Inc. were still competing heavily in the Southern Mindanao routes in the 1970’s.

Two very important developments happened before the end of the 1970’s. One, containerization began and this changed the game of shipping. Where before it was just practically the liners that carried the cargo, now the carriers split into two, the container ships and the liners. Subsequently, the passenger capacity of the liners grew as they no longer have to devote a lot of space for cargo. By this time, the massive migration of Christians to Southern Mindanao has also boomed its population and consequently more need to travel.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

The second development was the introduction of fast cruiser liners that call on just one intermediate port (before a liner to Davao will usually call first in Cebu, Tagbilaran, a northern Mindanao port maybe, Zamboanga definitely and Dadiangas. So where before 10-knot ships like the ex-”FS” and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships will take two weeks to complete an entire voyage and the faster ex-European passenger-cargo ships cycles every 10 or 11 days, the new fast cruisers complete the voyage in just a week. By my definition, fast cruisers of this period were the liners capable then of 18 knots. Usually, these were not converted cargo-passenger ships from other countries (these were fast cruisers even in Japan, usually). These were also luxury liners in the local parlance and one key feature of that is the availability of air-conditioning. With that truly luxurious suites and cabins became possible.

The fast “Dona Ana” (later “Dona Marilyn”) of Sulpicio Lines which came in 1976 tried to change the game by just having one intermediate port call, in Cebu. William Lines responded with the even faster cruiser “Manila City” (the second) in 1976 which only had Zamboanga as its intermediate port. With their speed and the use of just one intermediate port, the “Dona Ana” and “Manila City” was able maintain a weekly schedule. Although the luxurious flagship “Filipinas” of Compania Maritima was also fast at 17 knots, she dropped by many intermediate ports and so she cannot maintain a weekly sailing. Compania Maritima never dropped the old style of many intermediate ports.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Gothong+Lorenzo was not able to respond well to this challenge (though they tried) as they had no true fast cruiser liners. So, they had to use two ships for a route to maintain a weekly sailing or three ships to maintain a cycle of every 10 days. Sweet Lines also tried but like Gothong+Lorenzo they also have no fast cruisers assigned to Southern Mindanao (they had two though in Cebu, the “Sweet Faith” and the “Sweet Home”). Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines were the users of three ships to the Davao route to be able to cycle a ship every 10 days. Aboitiz Shipping, meanwhile, with no new ships simply dropped out of liner shipping to Southern Mindanao and just concentrated on container shipping.

Although William Lines and Sulpicio Lines already had fast cruiser liners to Southern Mindanao they also still used their old passenger-cargo ships to the region in the late 1970’s in conjunction with their fast cruisers liners. So with them the passengers have a choice of the fast or the slow which was also less luxurious. Fares also differed, of course.

In the container segment of shipping, the battle was toe-to-toe. Aboitiz Shipping rolled out the Aboitiz Concarriers, William Lines had the Wilcons, Sulpicio Lines fielded the Sulcons (Sulpicio Container) and later Lorenzo Shipping sailed the Lorcons (Lorenzo Container). Many of the ships mentioned were once general cargo ships converted into container ships. [The later series Aboitiz container ships were named Superconcarriers and Megaconcarriers.] Lorenzo Shipping then split with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and the latter then quit Southern Mindanao routes to concentrate on the Visayas-Mindanao routes. [Later, Lorenzo Shipping quit shipping altogether and sold out to the Magsaysay group before they were reborn as the Oceanic Container Lines.]

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In passenger liners, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines continued to battle in the Southern Mindanao ports in the 1980’s using fast cruiser liners. Sulpicio Lines had the edge as they had more fast cruiser liners [William Lines still had to make do with their graying former European passenger-cargo ships]. For a while until they quit in 1984, Compania Maritima was battling Sulpicio Lines more than toe-to-toe. After all, Southern Mindanao was the area of concentration of Compania Maritima and in Davao they even have their own port, the MINTERBRO port. Compania Maritima concentrated their best liners, the “Filipinas”, “Visayas” and “Mindanao” plus their passenger-cargo ships “Leyte Gulf” and “Dadiangas” in the General Santos/Davao route before the company’s life expired. While the three were battling, the other liner companies were not able to respond except for Sea Transport Co. and Solid Shipping Lines which were not operating passenger liners. One independent liner company, the Northern Lines Inc. which had routes to Southern Mindanao also quit at about the same time of Compania Maritima at the height of the political and financial crisis leading to the mid-1980’s.

Before the era of RORO liners, there were already more container ships to Southern Mindanao than passenger liners. That how strong was the growth of that new paradigm. This new dominant paradigm even forced the fast cruisers to carry container vans atop their cargo holds as that was already the demand of the shippers and traders.

In the 1980’s before the advent of RORO liners starting in 1983 there were actually only a few fast cruiser liners doing the Southern Mindanao routes. Among those was the “Dona Ana”, the pioneer fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines to Davao. This ship was later pulled out to replace “Don Sulpicio” in the Manila-Cebu route as the ship caught fire and she was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. However, the fast cruisers “Don Enrique” (the later “Davao Princess” and “Iloilo Princess” and “Don Eusebio” (the later “Dipolog Princess”) alternated in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. In 1981, when the “Philippine Princess” came, “Dona Marilyn” was reassigned to the Cotabato route. She was the first fast cruiser liner in that route.

Don Sulpicio, Dona Ana and Don Ricardo

Photo by Jon Uy Saulog

On another noteworthy trivia and clarification, Sulpicio Lines also fielded the third “Don Carlos” in the General Santos route in 1977. This ferry was a former vehicle carrier in Japan and so she had a cargo deck and a ramp. However, she was not used as a RORO ship. The ramps were just used to ease the loading of livestock from Gensan. This city sends a lot of those live commodities to Manila. She was actually a “WOWO” ship (Walk on, Walk Off). However, she also takes in heavy equipment and trucks bound for Gensan dealers. So technically “Don Carlos” was the first RORO to Southern Mindanao. But she did not use container vans.

For William Lines, the second “Manila City” (the first “Manila City” was an ex-”FS” ship) was their only fast cruiser to Southern Mindanao for a long time in this decade. Most of the passenger ships they were using in the region were former European passenger-cargo ships like what Sweet Lines were using (the company was also using the “Sweet Grace” to Southern Mindanao which was a brand-new liner in 1968 but was not that fast). Approaching the end of the decade only three national shipping companies were left sailing liners to Southern Mindanao – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. One of the reasons for that was the crisis spawned by the Aquino assassination halved the number of liner companies in the Philippines. It was not because the traffic to Southern Mindanao dropped considerably. In container shipping to Southern Mindanao before the RORO liners came there were six players – Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Sea Transport Company and Solid Shipping Lines.

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MV Don Carlos (Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1983, a new paradigm arrived in the Southern Mindanao routes and it ushered a new era. These are the RORO (or ROPAX) liners which were even bigger and just as fast as the fast cruiser liners. And they can carry more container vans than the fast cruisers. Later, RORO liners were even faster as they can already sail at 20 knots. Can anyone hazard a guess which was the first RORO liner of Southern Mindanao?

I will discuss the era of RORO liners in Southern Mindanao in a subsequent article (as I do not want this article to be too long and unwieldy). With that, it will be a discussion of the recent history of the Southern Mindanao routes and liners.

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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