Moving Cans

Just about everything in your life—food, cars, building materials—comes to Hawaii via the waterfront. We went inside the world of the longshoremen, who load and unload all that cargo, and found that centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines.


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Sause Brothers barge out of Coos Bay, Ore., discharges a load of construction materials.

Photo: Lucy Pemoni

“Longshoremen are organized into gangs,” Lum explains. “Ship gang. Wharf gang. Machine operators. Crane operators. Linemen.” The modern wharf gang, they move the cans around the yard and man the “puddle”—the loading zone beneath the gantry cranes. The ship gang handles the difficult manual work aboard a ship, locking and unlocking the cans from one another, and lashing and unlashing the stacks. In the early days of container use, workers used chains to lash the stacks against ocean storms. Today, the lashing is done with 20-foot steel rods secured with turnbuckles. The awkward task of scampering between the stacks, balanced on temporary walkways called duckboards, is still considered one of the longshoremen’s most dangerous jobs. “The meat and potatoes of longshore work is this ship gang,” says Lum.

Out on the edge of the apron—the broad tarmac that runs along the pier—several members of the wharf gang sit in the shade of the container yard tower, waiting for the unloading of the Lihue to begin. Lum drops me off there to find out how technology has affected regular stevedores. Even here, though, longshoremen often have years of experience. Some, like machine operator Kahea Sanborn, have been on the docks more than 20 years. But the experience runs deeper than that. Carlton Cortez, the gang foreman, is a third-generation longshoreman.*


Under the eerie light of the gantry cranes, a loaded container vessel looms over the docks.


Ship gang foreman Faasiu Saifoloi, working the night shift, looks on as his crew finishes unlashing the cans on a recently arrived container ship.

Photos: Lucy Pemoni
 

A basic “can,” or  container,  is 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet high. Locking mechanisms at the corners allow them to be securely stacked and moved around by the machinery in the yard. There are variations, specialized containers such as refrigerated cans for food, flat racks for lumber and cattle cans with slatted sides—but they still fit together like Tinker Toys. Containers are also standardized across freight platforms, so the cans from the containerships can be loaded onto semitrailers or stacked two deep on railroad cars. Within the past five years, the cans have also become GPS-equipped; their locations are monitored and recorded on computers in a Matson control room in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Machine operators also use increasingly sophisticated machines to move the cans. Little cabs, called UTCs, shuttle the cans between the cranes and the container yard, hauling them around on yellow utility trailers, nicknamed “bomb carts.”

Powerful vehicles, called top-picks and side-picks, lift the containers on and off the bomb carts. Like giant forklifts, they can hoist a 20-ton can onto a stack four stories high. The sheer mass of the loads and the gear makes this an especially dangerous job. Kahea puts the risks in perspective: “You don’t get injured. You die.”

Being a machine operator is considered a talent position, and the first advancement of most basic longshoremen is to get qualified to fill in as a substitute machine operator. “Used to be all labor,” Lum says. “Now it’s all skill jobs.”

The most easily recognized feature of the Matson yard is the rank of huge, yellow gantry cranes along the pier. They tower over the docks like the robots in War of the Worlds, their legs spread far enough apart that four lanes of traffic can pass under them. They load and unload the cans from the containerships. High above even the largest containership, the crane’s boom juts out over the water, cantilevered by the weight of its massive machine house. The cab, instead of being fixed, is attached to a trolley that runs on tracks beneath the boom. Shuttling in and out in his cab, the crane operator is always directly over his load. The entire crane rides on railroad tracks along the dock, so it can be moved fore and aft along the ship. Sometimes as many as four cranes work a single ship. A good crane operator can move more than 30 cans an hour in a precise ballet.

*This sentence has been modified since publication. It originally stated that many workers in Cortez's team were third-generation longshoremen, which is not correct.
 

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