Under a bright, clear sky yesterday afternoon, the 21-story blue cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal methodically hoisted cargo onto the container ship Patagonia from one flatbed truck after another.
But it's the last ship that will leave the port for two days.
In a last-resort effort by the state to keep Hurricane Isabel from harming ships, workers or equipment, the Maryland Port Administration ordered the port of Baltimore closed.
The trip up the Chesapeake Bay takes about 12 hours, and officials did not want to risk having ships caught in the narrow confines of the bay where they might strike bridges or risk grounding in 8-foot swells. Instead, vessels were instructed to run to sea away from the storm or to remain securely tied to piers in the port.
In the port, workers knew they couldn't stop gale-force winds and flood-inducing rain, but they could clamp the cranes to the ground and get clear.
"We tie them down and pray nothing happens," said Bill Tauber, a crane electrician who worked yesterday manually screwing together two ends of the metal clamps, four to a crane.
It was so bright that Tauber needed sunglasses, but he wasn't complaining. For Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the last time the port was closed, he worked in the rain.
The workers know what happens without the clamps: Two cranes were lost to the wind in the mid-1970s, and another last year when a ship slammed into the pier.
Port officials said their techniques and equipment have improved. Their planning is methodical. A meeting was held Monday to discuss what would need to be tied down or moved, said Barbara S. McMahon, the port's manager of safety and risk management.
Counting the hours
That followed a U.S. Coast Guard advisory that the storm was 72 hours away. The service refers to that as Hurricane Condition "Whiskey."
By yesterday, the Coast Guard had counted down to Hurricane Condition "Yankee," meaning the storm was 24 hours from striking.
After those alerts, the port officials held another meeting and ordered Baltimore's public ports closed until tomorrow.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Brian Poole said the service has ordered that the 39 ships in the port remain tied to a pier or anchored in the water.
The Coast Guard will not put Hurricane Condition "Zulu" in effect until the storm is upon the region.
While the Coast Guard bases its alerts solely on the time it takes for a hurricane to arrive, the public and private ports have a little more leeway.
"The big question is always when to stop business and start hurricane preparation," said Rebecca G. Barber, a spokeswoman for the port.
Port officials and the shipping line Mediterranean Shipping Co. decided yesterday that the Patagonia would have time to first unload and then, after reloading, make the journey back down the Chesapeake Bay and beyond harm's way.
Two ships scheduled to arrive today were told to stay in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, considered the safest place for large vessels not easily controlled in wind and rain.
A crane can withstand 100-mph winds, but it's no place for a longshoreman, who could be injured by swinging cargo.
Several times a year when the wind reaches about 50 mph - about 100 mph slower than the speed Hurricane Isabel reached last weekend - an alarm blares from the crane and warns the workers to get on the ground.
The mere threat of a storm was enough for C. Steinwig Inc., which operates a private terminal in Locust Point, to hunker down. Workers spent three hours Tuesday welding their two 134-ton cranes to the ground. The company and its shipping line also ordered a cargo ship to stay at sea.
"With our cranes, we wouldn't trust the weather service," said Rupert Denney, general manager of the company, which services bulk cargo such as metals and lumber. "We see a hurricane will be 200 miles away from us, and we lock them down."
Port and port-related businesses have been making such decisions all week, meeting and planning potentially pricey courses of action. About 2,800 ships a year enter the port, an average of 7.6 a day. The costs of delivery delays, as well as fuel and fees, mount quickly. Also affected are the tugboats that escort ships to the port, the bay pilots who steer the ships up the Chesapeake Bay, the shipping lines that carry the cargo, the longshoremen who handle the cargo and the terminal operators.
Fresh in everyone's minds is a typhoon that hit South Korea last week, throwing 5-ton shipping containers in the air, toppling huge cranes and flipping a cruise ship on its side.
But no one in Baltimore expects that. "We're at a definite advantage because we're inland," said former Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a longtime port consultant and historian. "The only time the weather, in my time, really hit us, we lost two cranes at Dundalk in a wind storm. But that was a long time ago."