Looming over the waterfront like a small herd of giraffes browsing in the tops of a stand of acacia trees, the 20-story cranes hoist bus-sized boxes from the ship berthed below, then lower them gently onto the backs of trucks called yard hustlers.
Container after container rises to the whirling winches, lightening the ship at a rate of 25 an hour, as the diesel trucks roar and whisk deposited boxes from the dock.
The $250 million Seagirt Marine Terminal, designed to lead Baltimore back to prominence among East Coast ports, is up and running after a very slow start.
One year after its opening, Seagirt still is only 70 percent leased, but maritime officials say the state-of-the-art facility is beginning to fulfill its promise of luring new business to the ailing Port of Baltimore.
Ten years in the planning and building, the facility increased the port's container cargo capacity by 50 percent.
When the facility opened, port officials said they expected Seagirt to be fully leased by January 1991. In the spring, with the facility less than half leased, former port director Brendan W. "Bud" O'Malley predicted Seagirt would be filled by year's end.
But customers did not come as fast as expected. The three lines that leased space at Seagirt during its first year came from other terminals in the port and meant no new business. Now, say port officials, the business is starting to come.
One of the largest container lines in the world announced recently that it will begin weekly service to Baltimore after a seven-year absence and call at Seagirt.
Although officials at Orient Overseas Container Line would not comment beyond a news release issued previously, port officials say they doubt OOCL would have come back to Baltimore without Seagirt.
At the time OOCL announced its decision to resume service to Baltimore, company president Al Benki declared Seagirt "the most modern facility with potential for the best production in the United States. . . ."
Just a few days after OOCL announced that it was coming to Seagirt, the terminal's initial tenant, Mediterranean Shipping Co., announced it will increase the containers it brings through the port as the result of a signed agreement with Empremar S.A.
The terminal's grand opening was Sept. 11, 1990, one day late because the ship that was to participate in the ceremony, the Rafaela, was delayed by engine problems.
The new terminal wasn't enough to lure the Tricon consortium in January or the Yangming line last November. Both, which had been expected to use Seagirt, decided to call at Hampton Roads, Va.
The leasing of the terminal also was delayed by the port administration's decision to limit the terminal exclusively to container cargo. That decision effectively barred Atlantic Container Line, one of the prospective tenants, which carries a mixture of container and roll-on, roll-off cargo such as tractors.
Hapag-Lloyd stopped making direct calls to the Port of Baltimore, opting instead to charter space on ACL vessels. Thus, the decision to bar ACL effectively barred Hapag-Lloyd cargo from Seagirt as well.
Now port officials say they do not know when the terminal will be fully leased.
Filling the terminal has been complicated by an overall consolidation of shipping lines. Others are waiting to see how Seagirt fares before making a commitment.
Michael Angelos, deputy director of the Maryland Port Administration, says port officials initially wanted to fill Seagirt as quickly as possible, but the administration has rethought the plan and now wants to proceed more cautiously.
Although the three tenants that leased space at Seagirt in the first year were not new, they brought some new business to the port, Angelos says.
Mediterranean, for example, increased its business from between 10,000 and 12,000 boxes a year to 17,000 boxes a year, Angelos says.
From September 1990 until August 1991, 947,568 tons of cargo -- about one-third of all the port's container cargo -- was transported through Seagirt. Dundalk Martine Terminal, still by far the largest terminal, moved 3.3 million tons of cargo. Of that amount, 2.4 million tons was in containers.
Capt. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, vice president of Mediterranean, says he likes to show potential customers Seagirt's modern, dual-hoist cranes and computerized gates.
Last week, he gave a tour of the facility to Philippe Goossens, a Belgian freight forwarder, and his client, Bruno Mertens, whose company ships synthetic rubber through the Port of Baltimore.
Both said they were impressed at what they saw at Seagirt. "It was clean and well-organized," Mertens said.
"When I saw it, I said, 'I'm missing something,' " Goossens said. "It was the dirt."