Giant new cranes help business soar at Port of Oakland

Ships previously headed elsewhere now come to the Bay Area first

The Bay Area is picking up tons of shipping business thanks to new giant cranes at the Port of Oakland, which are doing some heavy lifting during the current global supply-chain crisis.

You’ve seen them. From a distance, the cranes look a bit like the giant robot camels — the All Terrain Armored Transports, to be precise — from the “Star Wars” movies. But the cranes are even bigger.

They are among the four largest cranes in North America — 1,600 tons each with arms (booms) that can reach more than 400 feet into the sky. And they are hoisting up the Bay Area’s busiest port while other shipping centers are sinking beneath a traffic jam of freighters.

The fourth new crane started work this month at the Port of Oakland. The other three cruised into the port in March(watch a fascinating high-speed video of the operation here), right in time to add shipping capacity — much needed by ports around the world.

“These new cranes at Oakland are going to make a significant difference in the ability to handle cargo more efficiently,” said Port of Oakland Maritime Director Bryan Brandes in a statement.

When COVID-19 closed factories in China beginning in early 2020, a series of waves began that would crush global supply chains like a typhoon. First shipping from the Chinese ports was delayed — then chaos arrived at America’s shores.

With a backlog of orders and transportation discombobulated, dozens of ships a day anchor outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach awaiting berths. Those largest ports on the West Coast are well over capacity — and ships are headed north to Oakland.

Partly as a result of the added loading and unloading power of the new giant cranes, the Port of Oakland has picked up first-call service for four new shipping lines just this year. That means ships previously headed elsewhere now come to the Bay Area first.

And that means more dock worker jobs — some 900 new union employees have been trained this year, the port says — and faster delivery of goods. The port also picked up a stop on one of the main Asian shipping lines, which will begin next month.

Giant cranes prepare to unload a container ship in the Port of Oakland. <ins>(Courtesy Port of Oakland)</ins>

Giant cranes prepare to unload a container ship in the Port of Oakland. (Courtesy Port of Oakland)

The added mechanical muscle of the cranes helped make that happen, port officials said. It is now “ready to handle record cargo volumes” caused by supply chain disruptions, Brandes said.

Here’s how the cranes work: An operator sits in a room-sized box at the base of the boom, the long arm that extends from the crane. The box has a sort of windshield on the floor, about 2 feet by 4 feet, that the operator looks down through. From nearly 200 feet above the ship below, the operator pulls out the enormous shipping containers that carry cargo across the sea and are loaded onto trucks when they arrive.

The operator has to find certain containers to pull off the ship, and that means moving “pieces of the puzzle” around on the vessel, the port said. With taller cranes, there is more flexibility to move the containers on and off a ship. It’s like being 6-foot-6 and having an advantage at playing the party game Jenga because you have a better view of the blocks. And there are lots of blocks. The largest ships can carry more than 10,000 20-foot containers, port officials said.

There are now about two dozen cranes working at Oakland, among the 10 busiest ports in the country. All Port of Oakland container cranes are powered by electricity – proof that electric vehicles are getting bigger. On the down side, when drivers need to go to the bathroom, there’s no relief in the sky. But they do have buddies at the bottom who can switch out while they take a break on terra firma.

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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