With the wind whipping granules through the sweet-smelling air, Monday could have been just another day on the Domino Sugars docks in South Baltimore.
But workers in orange coveralls unloading raw sugar from a massive cargo ship were making company history.
In its nearly 90 years, the Domino refinery never before has received such a large single shipment of raw sugar — more than 95 million pounds.
Moreover, Monday's arrival of the vessel Simon Schulte marked the largest single shipment of raw sugar ever to any port east of the Mississippi River, Domino officials said. It will take 16 days to unload the cargo.
"It's the largest shipment that's ever come through here," said Kelly DeAngelo, process manager for American Sugar Refining Inc., Domino's parent company, which refines the Domino brand in Baltimore, New York, Louisiana, California and Europe. "Keeping stocked with sugar is critical."
Just docking the 600-foot-long, 100-foot-wide bulk cargo ship at Domino's Locust Point pier was an accomplishment, requiring two tugboats that spun the vessel 180 degrees before pushing it alongside the dock. In about 20 minutes, the Simon Schulte was tied up.
Once U.S. customs agents checked the vessel, which arrived from Guatemala, workers sprang into action. They hung giant tarps over the side of the ship to catch any sugar spills and opened hatches on deck to reveal what looked like enormous sandboxes.
From his perch in a cab 150 feet above the dock, veteran crane operator Chuck Terry had a sweeping view of Baltimore's harbor and the long ship below. His equipment can withstand winds of 40 miles per hour, so he kept working despite 35-mph gusts that set the crane rattling. A crane farther down the dock stopped operating to wait until the wind died down.
Terry focused on controlling a swinging bucket attached to the crane with cables. He lowered the bucket — which can lift about 4,500 pounds of sugar — digging it into the sand-colored raw sugar, scooping a load and swinging it over a chute on the dock.
The bucket dipped in smoothly, a sign the sugar was of good quality, Terry said. Dumped down the chute, the sugar slid onto long conveyor belts that rolled toward a weighing station and then into a gigantic storage shed.
Domino officials say it's fitting that the historic delivery comes as the refinery prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary next month. When the Domino plant opened on Baltimore's harbor in 1922, workers unloaded sugar into burlap sacks by hand.
The port of Baltimore has ranked No. 1 nationally each of the past two years for handling imported and domestic raw cane sugar, all of which comes into Domino's privately run terminal, port officials said. The port imported about 800,000 tons of sugar last year.
The Domino plant, which employs 500 people and can refine between 120 million and 140 million pounds of raw sugar a month, receives shipments from South America, Central America, South Africa and the Dominican Republic.
The plant ships bulk sugar by rail or truck to industrial customers, such as Hershey's, General Mills and Kraft Foods Inc., as well as packaged products to customers such as Walmart.
When Yonkers, N.Y.-based American Sugar heard the Simon Schulte was available, it asked the Baltimore plant to assess whether it could dock the huge ship. American Sugar, part of a cooperative with Florida Crystals and the world's biggest cane sugar refining company, is starting to rely on larger vessels to get raw materials to its plants as a way to lower transportation costs, company officials said.
It took some careful calculations to be sure the berth's 38-foot depth would be adequate for the Simon Schulte, DeAngelo said.
"We don't want to get this stuck," he said.
Shortly after its arrival Monday, Homeland Security agents boarded the ship to check crew members' visas and search the ship. Accompanying them was Thomas Dow, a ship's agent representing CSC Sugar, the Connecticut-based shipper.
"Any time a vessel comes through the Panama Canal, they have to search the vessel and check the rooms for stowaways," Dow said after disembarking and getting clearance for the unloading to start.
Below deck, some crew members met with the Rev. Mary Davisson, director of the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, which assists foreign crew members. Davisson, whose organization's volunteers visit ships in port, said some of the 20 or so Simon Schulte sailors, many of whom are Filipino, had visited Baltimore before.
"There was a lot of conversation about U.S. security rules and how difficult it is for them trying to go ashore now than [it was] five or six years ago," she said. "Now they need security escorts, so that's a role for us. This crew was talking about going shopping to Walmart and Best Buy and coming to the Seafarers' Center — those are pretty common requests."
She said the "sugar ships" typically stay in port 10 days to two weeks — "but this will be in a long time, even for a sugar ship."
When the first piles of sugar began moving down the conveyor belts, DeAngelo scooped up a handful to do an initial visual assessment.
"It looks pretty good," he said into his hand-held radio.
"That's good," the reply came back, "since there are 95 million pounds of it."