High-flying crane operators keep containers moving through Halifax

Almost everything sold or consumed has spent time in a container, and it may have been swung off a ship by Terry Smallwood of Halifax.

'It's kind of like a video game, except you don't get 3 lives,' says crane operator

Terry Smallwood operates one of the gantry cranes above the Halterm container terminal in Halifax's south end. (Brett Ruskin/CBC News)

High above Halifax harbour, Terry Smallwood keeps the "lifeblood" of the global economy flowing.

Smallwood has operated gantry cranes for nearly two decades, lifting and lowering containers arriving at one of Canada's busiest ports.

More than 90 per cent of global trade relies on containers that criss-cross the world's oceans, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Almost everything sold or consumed has spent time in a container.

In fact, the device you're reading this CBC News story on was likely once on a shipping container — possibly swung off a ship by Smallwood.

'Like a video game'

To get to work, Smallwood's commute includes climbing two flights of steel stairs and squeezing into a single-person elevator.

His office is 45 metres above a bustling concrete wharf, with tractor-trailers zipping beneath his crane.

The view from Smallwood's cabin. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Smallwood looks straight down through the crane's glass floor. With a joystick in each hand, he lifts and swings 25-tonne containers with the ease of grabbing a dime off the sidewalk.

"It's kind of like a video game, except you don't get three lives," said Smallwood.

Link in the global logistics chain

Shipping containers rarely stop moving.

From the point they're loaded, they may spend time aboard ships or on trucks and trains.

When transitioning between those modes of transportation, efficiency is key. Crane operators like Smallwood work in shifts and continue day and night. By the time a container has been raised off a tractor-trailer and lowered into a ship, a different truck has rolled beneath the crane, ready for its container to be lifted.

"Get the cargo off, get the cargo on, turn the ship around," said Daniel Maher, Halterm's assistant operations manager.

A shipping container is lifted onto a ship at Halifax's Halterm terminal. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

"[The ship's] main purpose is to be transiting to the next port of call, so the shorter we make that time, the [more] efficient we use that time, the better it is for the customer."

Expansion plans

The Halterm shipping terminal has plans to expand in the years ahead.

They'll extend the wharf to allow two ultra-class ships to be loaded and unloaded simultaneously. Right now, they can only fit one.

It means workers like Smallwood will be swinging containers over bigger ships, to ensure the lifeblood of the economy keeps moving.