The backbone of the ports; An inside look at port crane operators

SC Ports Crane Operator Karl Nell at work

By Jon

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C.(WCIV) -- It takes a steady hand, expert concentration and nerves of steel to hoist the thousands of steel containers at South Carolina Ports.

The dedicated men and women who work the shipping cranes know that first hand.

It is a complex series of movements to move those containers something that has become second nature for veteran crane operator Karl Nell. {}

But the jerky, rocky nature of the job, picking up three-ton containers with a crane complete with a glass bottomed cab and swinging them onto a waiting truck below was a new and unsettling sensation.

Nell is a part of a 23 man crew tasked with lifting, lowering, and hoisting these boxes off the boat and onto a seemingly unending parade of drayage trucks is a task he takes great pride in.

"We are very competitive and so to be competitive, bring out pride, we are what I would say the backbone of the ports authority," Nell said. {}"Each one of us has a role in building a legacy for our port and our families."

From what Nell calls his private penthouse in the sky, a room with a view of the Wando river, the motivated mover is able to hoist nearly 400 crates a day - emptying up to four of those container ships in a single shift.

Nell and his colleagues do it all with the touch of a joystick, a few simple buttons and a color coded system of lights to guide them.

"The red light tells me if I'm seated on the box, green light is unlocked." Nell said while lifting container after container with effortless accuracy. "Yellow light is locked so you'll see once I land on this next box the green light will stay illuminated the red light goes out to say I'm down."

If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. The move consists of a big box and a big margin for error, but Nell is able to break it down in a way that just about anyone can understand.

"Moving the containers is almost like playing a game of baseball on the Playstation or Xbox," he said. "You see the pitch come and you just have to know before the pitch comes if it's something you can hit or not."

Watching the almost assembly line-like proficiency of the unloading process can only be described as a symphony of calculated movements and the crane operators are so good at it, they are able to take one of those containers from a ship and place it on a truck in about 47 seconds.

With funding now in place to deepen Charleston Harbor, the hard working men and women of the SC State Ports Authority say they are ready to ramp up production.

"A deeper harbor means bigger ships, means more work," Nell said. "When you think about the economy, it helps my family. We welcome it. The cranes are big enough to handle any ships that are coming in, so we welcome any challenge that comes our way."

And while the process may seem like a repetitive task from the ground, Nell says no two moves are the same.

So what is it that drives them?

A healthy competition to be the best.

"Every move is different," He said. "This is a job where you can push yourself, you can make a big mistake, or you can just sit back and be mediocre. But everybody wants to be the rooster."

A dedication that has made the Port of Charleston the most efficient operation in the Southeast which give Nell and fellow port workers an important sense of pride to help lower the boom on this tough economy.


close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off