Giant port cranes move from cargo ship to new berth

Each one weighs as much as 9,000 Tony Siragusas (the former Ravens defensive lineman) and at full extension rises as high as Baltimore's World Trade Center. Together, the port's four new cargo cranes are about to make a splash on the city's skyline.

But first the gleaming white cranes, worth $40 million, must be rolled off the ship that brought them from China — without a splash.

Coaxing them from the Zhen Hua 13 onto the dock requires delicate planning and brute force.

Engineers and ironworkers at Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore's port have already unloaded two of the cranes and are ready to move the final two before the month is out.

On Sunday, the first crane came rolling off. On Tuesday morning, the second crane crept across the ship's deck on railroad tracks and crossed the 8-foot watery gap between the ship and its berth.

"It's always an anxious moment," said Patrick Howell, head of engineering and crane operations for Ports America, which runs Seagirt. "I always breathe easier when one of them is sitting on this side."

The actual move isn't the hard part, though.

"That's the icing," said Mark Schmidt, general manager for Ports America, as he watched the operation.

The hard part is aligning the tracks on the ship with the tracks on the dock, removing the steel that braced the cranes during their two-month voyage, arranging the rigging that guides the load, and trimming the ship's ballast to ensure that the Zhen Hua remains stable as the cargo shifts.

"That's the diciest part of it," Schmidt said. "But these guys do it all the time."

"These guys" are six engineers sent to supervise the move by ZCMP, the Shanghai-based company that supplies nearly 80 percent of the world's shipping cranes.

And then, after all the prep work, it's a matter of 30 or so men working as one.

Acting as brakes, cables the width of a child's wrist go taut on the far side of the ship as forklifts stationed dockside strain to pull the massive white structure forward. Slowly, the crane's wheels begin to turn, then stop.

The ship's ballast is trimmed and the steps are repeated until the crane is on the dock. Two down, two to go.

"To get it off the ship in an hour — boom — amazing," said Schmidt with a grin.

Once all the cranes are on the dock, crews will spend a few days raising the booms and attached machine rooms to their full 40-story height.

Then, over the next two months, the cranes will be tested and readied for work. Operators, tucked beneath the booms like ball turret gunners, will be trained to handle the new machines.

"There's going to be a learning curve," Howell said. "Because of the height, the perception of the operator is going to be different. And these cranes are much faster."

In addition to being able to handle the largest cargo ships in the world, the faster cranes will mean more efficient unloading of ships of all sizes, he said.

Both men rode up the Chesapeake Bay aboard the Zhen Hua last week and climbed to the top of the cranes to watch as first the Bay Bridge and then the Key Bridge passed less than 10 feet overhead.

"I just went up for the view," Schmidt said.

The cranes, which turned heads on the way to their new home, are expected to keep doing so.

"They will be a beautiful visual coming along [Interstate] 95," Howell said. "They will definitely add to the Baltimore skyline."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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