Being No. 1 is no accident

Behemoths: A yearly rodeo teaches the port's longshoremen how to ride steeds as big as a house, thereby keeping accidents to a minimum.

May 06, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The John Deere 9660 STS combine is a two-story, green behemoth that costs twice as much as the average house in Baltimore and seems almost big enough to live in. With it, farmers can thresh at least 80 acres of grain in a day.

But driving a combine into the belly of a cargo ship is like driving a rowhouse down the ramp of a parking garage.

"They asked me to do it last week, but I refused because I didn't want to assume I knew how to do it," said Otis Smithson, a port of Baltimore longshoreman for about eight months. "But I got some hands-on experience and some confidence. ... It's a sweetheart of a machine. Smooth."

Smithson and about 200 other rookies who now spend their days driving equipment on and off ships signed up for the Ro-Ro Rodeo, two days of training that ended yesterday.

The rodeo offers dockworkers a chance to learn driving basics from a half dozen manufacturers such as John Deere of Moline, Ill.

Ro-ro is maritime slang for equipment that can roll on and roll off ships on their own wheels. It's typically bulky and expensive cargo, such as construction and farm vehicles. Baltimore has become the largest handler of ro-ro cargo on the East Coast, with more than 445,000 tons moved last year. It is also a large handler of automobiles, although they are not considered ro-ro.

Baltimore owes its top ro-ro ranking to being the East Coast port closest to the Midwest. For heavy equipment manufacturers, the shorter trip means their unwieldy cargoes are less exposed to damage while en route to the port.

Containerized cargo more often goes farther by train and truck to Hampton Roads, Va., New York and other ports on the Atlantic.

Those ports continue to expand their container operations and lure more steamship lines, making it somewhat unlikely that Baltimore will gain more market share in that area.

Avoiding mishaps

To maintain its ro-ro advantage, Baltimore's longshoremen are training to become more proficient at driving vehicles on and off ships, limiting most mishaps to small scratches and dents.

It's not as simple as it might sound. Several years ago, in a scene painful to insurance companies as well as luxury car enthusiasts, a longshoreman crashed three Jaguars in one day. It was enough to push the automaker to use another port for years before being lured back. And a Jag is no combine.

At the port's Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday, Steve Zobrist, a trainer for John Deere, said most rookies come as green as the company's signature paint.

But Smithson and a line of other drivers quickly found themselves comfortable in the padded seat of the combine's air-conditioned cab five long steps up a ladder. Power over the green monster is gained in the same way most video dragons are slain - with a joystick.

Push it forward to move ahead and backward for reverse. Push the button with the turtle's image to go slow and the button with the rabbit to go faster.

The New Holland HW320 self-propelled swather, a tractor-like machine used to cut hay, was smaller, but as dock worker Linda Kowal discovered, it was harder than driving a house.

Grocery cart

The back wheels, which move with the freedom of a grocery cart, flopped forward and back as the machine circled a parking lot in the back of the terminal. The front wheels changed direction as she changed the speed of each tire.

And on this machine and most others, the longshoremen could forget about seeing what was behind them. A few traffic cones and longshoremen outfitted in orange meshing helped guide them around the asphalt.

By the second day of the rodeo, Tony Wisker, trainer for the swather's New Holland, Pa. manufacturer, still had the calm demeanor of an instructor at a teen-age driving class. He declared Kowal proficient in less than 15 minutes.

`Tricker than a car'

Not bad, Kowal said, considering "it was a little trickier than a car."

Organizers of the port's ninth annual rodeo were pleased with turnout and performance. The rodeo training appears to reduce the number of dings, sideswipes and other costly mishaps involving the 1,500 or so longshoremen, said Bill Reeve, safety director for P&O Ports, a firm responsible for handling port cargo.

Reeve, who also is lead organizer of the rodeo for the Steamship Trade Association and the Maryland Port Administration, said:

"Baltimore is No. 1 in handling ro-ro and No. 2 in automobiles. And you don't get there by accident, or by having accidents."

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