Ricky Ponce spends his days moving controls that look like toy joysticks, but his job is one of the most dangerous games around: lifting multi-ton cargo containers and lowering them onto trucks as gently as setting grocery bags on a kitchen counter.
Ponce works in a tiny, trolley-mounted cabin, hanging about 140 feet off the ground, running one of the Port of Long Beach’s new breed of supersized ship-to-shore cranes. Called super post-Panamax cranes, after the huge ships they are designed to unload, the machines soar 15 stories above the wharves and can reach to the far side of the bulging vessels, which are nearly twice as wide as the Panama Canal.
Ocean shipping lines keep ordering bigger and bigger ships as they try to grab business from one another. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s biggest shipping complex, that means buying bigger and bigger cranes.
“We’ll run them 16 hours a day on two shifts, five cranes to a ship,” said Charles W. Doucette, general manager for terminal operations at the Long Beach Container Terminal. More than half of the cranes at the twin ports are these towering machines.
Cranes are among the most basic of a seaport’s heavy machinery. But they also represent an expensive gamble, costing as much as $11 million apiece, that requires cargo terminal operators to predict the state of the international shipping industry 10 to 20 years into the future, and what kind of crane they will need to load and unload ships that haven’t been built yet.
The Long Beach Container Terminal’s three biggest cranes can reach across a ship wide enough to carry a row of 22 cargo containers, or about 210 feet. When the cranes were built in 2005, they looked like overkill; ships that wide weren’t even on the drawing boards. Now, 22-container-wide ships are common.
The stakes in terms of jobs are enormous, not just at the ports but also for the trucking companies and railroads that serve them, and the warehouse and distribution centers that handle the goods. Guessing wrong — by betting on cranes with a reach that is too short — would cause enormous loading and unloading delays. Ships would have to be undocked, turned around by tugboats and redocked to service the other side of the vessel, Doucette said.
That would make it far more likely a shipping line would avoid seaports that don’t have enough giant cranes, taking those international trade jobs elsewhere.
“This is an industry that is constantly moving toward bigger and better and faster. So, we just moved ahead with where we thought the industry was headed,” Doucette said. “It was a good guess. In 10 years, even the smaller ships are going to be 22 containers wide.”
For the guy working the crane, “it can be stressful,” said Ponce, 52. “You have to come to work concentrating only on what you are about to do. You can’t have anything else on your mind or else you’re going to make a mistake.”
Now, the ocean freight industry is making another leap forward. An expanded Panama Canal, set to open in 2014, is said to be capable of handling even larger ships. That could allow some vessels that normally stop in Los Angeles and Long Beach to go directly to Gulf Coast and East Coast ports.
Ports around the U.S. will be scrambling to dredge channels deep enough to accommodate the new giants when they arrive and to acquire cranes big enough to service them. Cranes like the ones at the Long Beach Container Terminal weigh several thousand tons and are delivered on the decks of supertankers.
Los Angeles and Long Beach officials said they are ready for ships they don’t expect to see calling at the ports for several years.
In coming years, the Long Beach Container Terminal will move into a new facility at the Port of Long Beach’s billion-dollar Middle Harbor project. And soon after that, it will be time to place bets “on the next big gamble on the crane sizes of the future,” Doucette said.
“Who knows how wide those ships will be? Will they be 23 containers across? Will they be 27 across?” he said. “Whatever it is, we’ll order the specifications based on that, and hope for the best.”