Silhouetted against a bright blue sky yesterday morning on his perch at the top of a stack of cargo containers rising four stories above the deck of the Rafaela S., Joe Carter helped nudge the crane hoist into position. On a hand signal from Mr. Carter to the crane operator in his cab high overhead, the hoist dropped with a clang and locked onto the corners of a blue cargo container.
At 8:21, as the crane lifted the box gently off the ship, Jim Cook, one of the longshoremen helping to unload the cargo, applauded. The first container from the first ship to be unloaded at the port of Baltimore's new Seagirt Marine Terminal was on its way.
Seagirt, with its high-speed cranes, automated gate complex and adjacent rail yard, is the port of Baltimore's greatest and perhaps last hope of regaining its competitive edge. Five years after construction began and a year and a half after the original target date, Seagirt was at last in full operation.
Mr. Cook was not the only one applauding. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, one of the dignitaries who turned out to mark the arrival of the first ship, was impressed. "Move, move, move," he said. "We're moving those containers at a record rate."
Unlike most media events, the ceremony at Seagirt yesterday harbored the possibility of genuine embarrassment. As the governor and other dignitaries drank a champagne toast under a green-and-white tent on the Seagirt dock, in full view just a few hundred feet away the longshoremen were conducting what amounted to the first real test of the terminal's cranes.
Given the risks, most of those involved tried to keep their expectations low. "We're just hoping for a smooth operation," Michael Angelos, general manager of the state subsidiary operating Seagirt, said just before the work began. "As the men get used to it, then you realize the efficiencies of the technology."
The Rafaela S. is operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., the Geneva-based line that was the first to sign a Seagirt lease. Capt. Nicola Arena, president of the agency that represents Mediterranean, said he would have been happy if the longshoremen had been able to move an average of 20 containers an hour on the first day. In fact, the dockworkers, who belong to Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, averaged more than 26 "moves" yesterday morning and for one period achieved a rate of 36 an hour.
One of the onlookers, Chris Hayes, head of Puerto Rico Marine Management Inc. in Baltimore, said, "Thirty-six moves the first day -- damn good." His opinion may be important, since the line his company represents is considering becoming a tenant at Seagirt. He said of the terminal, "It's the best on the East Coast without any doubt."
Yesterday, it was Captain Arena's opinion that perhaps mattered most, since if his line succeeds at Seagirt, others are more likely to follow. (Evergreen Marine Corp., based in Taiwan, also has signed a lease. Its first ship is scheduled to come to Seagirt next month.)
Captain Arena said something people in Baltimore have not heard for a long time: His line has diverted to Baltimore cargo that Mediterranean had been routed through the port's archrival, Hampton Roads, Va.
"Our mere presence here is an act of faith," he said, and he saw reason to believe that taking the risk of being the first line to use Seagirt would pay off.
"In the past, the port of Baltimore had a reputation of a certain intransigence," he said. But in the last few months, "we've seen a new spirit of cooperation. This cooperation translates into a better environment for business."
He noted that when a new crane goes into operation, it is not uncommon to experience rates of only eight or nine moves an hour. "We were prepared to be lucky to have 20," he said, calling the rate of 36 an hour "incredible."
Before Seagirt opened, Mediterranean considered the port of Baltimore to be competitive with the ports at Hampton Roads. With Seagirt's fast cranes, adjacent rail yard and efficient processing of trucks, Captain Arena expects his line to achieve "substantial savings" by routing Midwestern rail cargo through Baltimore rather than Hampton Roads.
About the only person to express any disappointment yesterday was crane operator Dennis Biddinger. "I wasn't pleased with myself," he said. "I didn't feel like I was in control."
He expressed confidence that with a little more practice, he could do much better. "They could easily do 35 or better," he said of the new cranes.
If Mr. Biddinger was unhappy with his performance, no one else was. Mr. O'Malley said, "It was damn fine production for a container terminal on its first day."
Mr. Biddinger was so nervous the night before his debut at the crane's controls that he could not sleep, according to Mr. O'Malley, who joked that he may insist Mr. Biddinger be
forbidden from sleeping the night before his next scheduled shift.