Local Interest
12:30 am
Sun February 4, 2007

The Men Behind the Machines -- Operators Eagerly Await Cranes

Wilmington, NC – When Wilmington's new cranes arrived at the port dangling scraps of their bright yellow catwalks, no one's heart must have hurt more than Walter Taylor's. Taylor is the port's Crane and Heavy Lift Equipment Manager, and for two years, these cranes have been his babies. Taylor helped design everything from the operator cabs to those now-damaged walkways.

"I made sure my operators and the workers had access to everything on the crane, so I've got more walkway than you'll see on any container crane."

Taylor and his crew of operators designed the cranes, but they began their existence half a world away, on an island off shanghai, in a massive construction yard that Taylor describes as a mix of the 13th century and the 23rd, where workers balanced on bamboo platforms complete roughly a crane a day.

"Activity you could see halfway across the river, you know, welding, and larger cranes carrying components to be erected it was breath-taking, to someone like me, who likes equipment."

When the cranes left China several months, Taylor posted a map next to his office, where his operators could watch the massive machine's progress around the globe, with some impatience.

"I've had one operator actually go to China and operate them and he come back with some good stories, and all the men are really excited with the chance to get in."

Once the men do get their hands on the new cranes, they'll find a lot to get used to, new technology will take over tasks that once belonged to the operator.

"Certain automatic slowdowns, and such as that. The operator now has to think of that himself and use those levers. This crane will automatically, in certain areas, take that away from the operator and slow the crane down, or turn this off or turn that on. So just getting used to the new automation is the main thing. Information, they're going to have a lot more information on these cranes that they've ever had."

Taylor is sure his men are up to the task. Wilmington's crews have already set speed records with the existing cranes. And Taylor likes to brag about how local teamsters compete to get the fastest operators, laying bets about who will unload the most containers in a shift.

When the ship bearing the cranes did finally crest the horizon last week, all other considerations were momentarily dwarfed by the equipments' sheer size. The cranes even stunned a veteran crewman shepherding the media boat.

"That's the widest I've ever seen stuff hanging over the side of a ship, by far."

In this case, size is everything. Cargo vessels are getting bigger - the latest generation is wider than the maximum dimensions allowed through the Panama Canal, earning them the science fiction-sounding title post-Panamax. Without capacity to handle those vessels, North Carolina Ports CEO Tom Eagar says the state was in danger of losing shipping lines.

"You know, you can talk a good game, but unless you really deliver and show your commitment, for example, acquiring these cranes, that sends a very strong message."

But despite their global origins, Wilmington's new cargo cranes do arrive with a paint job should help them fit into their new surroundings. Just ask Eagar.

"Well, let's call them Carolina Blue. I'm not going to say which school here, because I've already gotten into whether, what university it represents. I call it Carolina Blue."

Only in town three days, and the cranes are already being asked to pick a basketball team? Welcome to North Carolina.