Local crane operator sets the bar high

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 9, 2007.

Although he's sitting still, Homer Wright is dancing.

It's not his legs that are dancing, but his hands - and his hands' extensions: the flippers dangling 100 feet below the cab of the crane Wright sits in, the spreaders that are grabbing containers and moving them to shore.

The dance isn't going as fast today as it was a week or so ago, but that's not surprising: On that day, Wright's dance was one of the fastest in the nation, setting a Jacksonville record as he moved 269 containers from a Mediterranean Shipping Co. ship to shore in 5.7 hours.

That's 47.19 containers an hour, one 20-ton box every 76 seconds.

"It's sort of like a rhythm you get into," Wright said after setting the record. "You sit up there and say, 'If they can stay with me, I'm going to see what I can do today.'"

The "they" is everyone else involved in unloading a ship, particularly the truck drivers who must be in position to receive the boxes.

But the pace is set by Wright, perched far above the St. Johns River, doing the job he's loved since his first day in the cab.

For the Port Authority, Wright's record is more than just praise-worthy: It's also part of its marketing message.

"We brag about that," said Roy Schleicher, the senior director for marketing the port. "It just goes to show the capability of the Longshoremen. You got some ports that have wonderful facilities that do 20 containers an hour."

Nationally, crane operators average between 25 and 35 moves per hour, while West Coast ports often post averages in the low 20s. Jacksonville operators on average move between 38 to 40 containers per hour, with each operator controlling the crane for four or five hours a shift.

In coming months, the need for workers who can do that type of job will become more acute. The Port of Jacksonville is not known for handling containers, with other types of cargo - particularly cars - being a mainstay of the operation. That will change in late 2008, when TraPac, the terminal operating arm of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., opens up its operation at Dames Point. In the first year, that terminal is expected to have the equivalent of 200,000 20-foot-long containers flow through it, increasing to 800,000 containers by 2011.

"The skilled worker is the key focal point," said Dennis Kelly, East Coast regional vice president for TraPac. "These guys are well-seasoned workers that have the concept of how things flow."

Becoming one of those well-seasoned workers takes years, even if you start young.

Wright always wanted to be a Longshoreman, one of the unionized workers who do a variety of jobs getting cargo on and off ships. Once he got his union card, he knew exactly where at the port he wanted to be: One hundred feet above the ground, in the cab of a giant gantry crane.

"People kept saying, 'What do you keep looking up there for?'" Wright remembers. "This is something I wanted to do since I first seen it."

Now 55, Wright signed up as dock worker in 1970, following in the footsteps of his father, who supported 11 kids working at the port. But Dad wasn't keen on Homer, the third oldest child, working on the waterfront, a job marked by heavy, dangerous labor; he blocked Homer's oldest brother from signing up with the union. He was finally dissuaded when a friend of Homer's signed up.

"That changed his outlook," Wright said, although his father wasn't wrong: "It was hard. It was dangerous. But I knew it was one of the better jobs I'd ever get."

Sixteen years later, it became the job he dreamed about when he started training to operate a gantry crane.

Gantry cranes are the massive blue pieces of machinery that can be seen by drivers on the Dames Point bridge or Talleyrand Avenue. Moving around on giant rubber tires or on tracks, the cranes are a key element in the modern supply chain. Gone are the days of longshoremen hooking bundles and toting bales. Over the past 50 years, containers have become the mode of transportation for many goods, and getting containers on and off a ship requires cranes, a job that can pay around $20 an hour.

Hoisting boxes at 175 feet a minute and moving back and forth between ship and shore at 600 feet a minute, the machine is controlled by someone like Wright perched in a command chair, manipulating a series of joysticks by touch.

"It's all hand-eye coordination to get it working," said crane technician Mike Becker. (Like drivers, crane techs are another part of the crew that keeps boxes flowing. In Becker's case, his job is a blend of software developer, electrician, hydraulics engineer and more, a behind-the-scenes position that keeps the cranes operating.)

Not everyone has that coordination, said Becker, who has worked with wanna-be drivers as they go through the port's equipment familiarization process prior to being trained by the union.

"Some guys just don't make it," Becker said, either from fear of heights, lack of manual dexterity or an inability to deal with the pressure. "There's a lot of stress involved."

And a lot of skill.

"He just has a God-given talent," TraPac's Kelly, who has been involved with shipping for decades, said about Wright.

Moving a 40-foot-long metal box from a ship to a waiting truck takes timing and techniques, Wright said - skills that come partially through practice, partially through schooling, partially from listening to old timers.

"There's a lot you have to have -," Wright breaks off, lifts his ball cap and taps his head.

That skill was evident Tuesday as Wright loaded containers onto a Horizon Lines vessel, plucking them off trucks and sliding them into the hold of the ship, making sure each box was in the proper place.

The 1 1/8-inch cable wound and unwound as the spreader mechanism went up and down, snagging boxes and letting them go, Wright keeping them stable despite high winds. For the - literal - capstone, the crane operator picked up a hatch cover from the dock and slid it into place, a maneuver requiring Wright to connect with four holes only half an inch wider than his grabber.

It took him about 20 seconds to do so.

Getting to the point where people trust you to operate a crane takes about two years, in Wright's estimation, although the job provides a constant education, much of it handed down from those who have been doing it for years.

Wright's mentor was an old-school Longshoreman named Frank Harrity, a crane operator whose record Wright beat a few years ago. "At some point the student gets better than the teacher," Wright said.

After two decades behind the control panel, Wright is now a mentor himself, ready for the day his record is surpassed. "You got about five guys here capable of doing what I did that night," he said. "But they had to pattern themselves after me in order to keep up."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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