Getting a lift

Port of Wilmington has four giant ones shipped from China to boost its business.
By Maury Faggart

No music played, but the choreography was on a grand scale. After the State Ports Authority put in its order with Zhenhua Port Machinery Co., the Chinese maker of the world's largest cargo-handling equipment had to build and move more than 7,700 miles four cranes as tall as 30-story buildings. It took two months to get them to Wilmington. But when one hoisted cargo in April, the port completed a major step in its five-year, $143 million container-terminal expansion. The project will nearly double the state's ability to handle the ubiquitous metal boxes that, moving by ship, truck and rail, carry most of the consumer products imported to and exported from North Carolina. There's more to come, including a $1.5 billion terminal on the west bank of the Cape Fear River by about 2016.

Getting the cranes built was the easy part, says Walter Taylor, the authority's manager of heavy-lift equipment. That just took money. The Shanghai company's bid - $33.4 million, delivered - beat one by the Korean company that's the world's only other source of heavy port equipment. "At ZPMC," Taylor says, "they've got about 30,000 people working on cranes for ports all over the world. The day ours were loaded, they had 67 others standing there, waiting to be shipped." Its vessels ferry them, assembled, around the globe.

The 788-foot Zhen Hua 16 departed Dec. 2. Saddled with six cranes, it was too big to negotiate the Panama or Suez canals, so it skirted Africa's southern tip. Unloading two cranes in Jamaica, it sailed to Wilmington. Before docking Feb. 3, it grazed an anchored barge, doing minor damage to the barge and cranes. Then Chinese engineers and their Ports Authority counterparts began a gargantuan balancing act. The cranes tower 345 feet - nearly half the height of Bank of America's 60-story Charlotte headquarters - on legs that stand more than 100 feet apart. Booms that stretch over ships to pick up containers reach out more than 165 feet.

Tar Heel companies already had put in months of work. The port had paid T.A. Loving Co. of Goldsboro $3.9 million to install a rail system to shuffle the cranes along the dock and King Electric of Fayetteville Inc. $3.2 million to update the terminal's electrical system. Now the task was to get the cranes, each weighing more than 1,300 tons, off the ship. Using heavy beams to span the gap, the cranes were aligned with the rails on the dock and, with giant cables, tugged inch by inch off the Zhen Hua 16. "It's like building a bridge" - with one end moving, Taylor says. There were minor problems, but after nine days, the cranes were in place.

Now what? Two factors are crucial in global logistics - speed and capacity, Taylor says. "We'll have them both." The trollies - the wheeled cable pulleys on booms that extend over ships to load and unload containers - on the new cranes move twice as fast as those on the port's older ones, some of which have been in use since 1974. The new cranes' longer booms let them load and unload larger ships. Container ships are measured by how many 20-foot containers - they vary from 20 feet to 40 feet or more, so equivalents are used - they can carry. "We're currently serving vessels that carry just over 5,000 20-foot equivalent units," ports spokeswoman Karen Fox says. "Our new cranes will allow us to handle vessels that carry up to 8,000 20-foot equivalent units." Those are the largest container ships using Atlantic ports.

With the older cranes, Wilmington could handle about 225,000 container units a year. Now it's more than 400,000. "That'll increase our capacity and give more options for North Carolina businesses," Fox says. "It'll put us in the same league as the other big East Coast ports."