From Jaguars to 'junkers,' Baltimore longshoremen are first and last behind the wheel

Leo McFadden Jr. doesn’t drive them far, but this car lover has a dream job.

The 16-year Baltimore longshoreman is part of a team of drivers who get behind the wheel of all the newest foreign makes and models before they are seen at a dealership or in a magazine. The dockworkers drive Jaguars, Maseratis, Mercedes and all manner of other gleaming vehicles off ships from Europe and Asia and onto American soil at the port of Baltimore.

“You name it, I’ve been in it,” McFadden said. “I get to test drive everything there is. It’s probably easier to tell you what I haven’t driven than what I have.”

The port of Baltimore handled more than 800,000 autos and light trucks for the first time last year. Cars and other roll-on/roll-off cargo are the port’s top commodity, accounting for a combined import and export value of $19.4 billion in 2017, and Baltimore has been the nation’s top “ro/ro” port for the last seven years, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

Vehicles are shipped through its public and private terminals in Dundalk, Fairfield and Locust Point. Hundreds of acres of thousands of cars, trucks, tractors and other rolling stock are lined up bumper-to-bumper on lots just off the waterfront, waiting to be shipped to dealers or overseas.

While 70 percent of the vehicles that come through the port are imported, the longshoremen also handle exports of new American-made vehicles and used cars as well as “junkers” — damaged vehicles often being sold for parts.

The farthest inland port on the East Coast, Baltimore is well-positioned on the Interstate 95 corridor and closest to Midwest automakers — advantages for its auto shipping business.

The work requires more labor than any other port operation because each vehicle needs a driver to move it, said Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333.

“There’s nothing else that comes close to the number of man hours that produces,” he said.

Despite some labor unrest a few years ago, Maryland Port Administration Executive Director Jim White touted the union as key in growing the port’s business and remaining one of Maryland’s top economic engines.

“We would not have the success we have had without our skilled longshore men and women,” he said.

One day last week at Dundalk Marine Terminal, a crew of roughly 90 unloaded about 2,500 Subarus, Mitsubishis and Hino trucks from the Daedalus Leader, an NYK Line carrier that brought the vehicles from Japan.

The process typically takes between eight hours and a few days, depending on the shipping line’s schedule and the number of vehicles being unloaded. Each longshoreman usually moves between three and six cars an hour.

A gang of workers known as “lashers” untie the vehicles from their moorings on the deck. Two or three “breakout” drivers — generally the slimmest ones with the best driving records — squeeze into the first few tightly parked vehicles to get them off the ship. That doesn’t usually require climbing in through a window, McFadden said, but it can.

As more cars come off, vans shuttle dozens of longshoremen up the ships’ ramps and onto the various decks in the cavernous holds to retrieve the rest.

Time is of the essence, but the drivers make sure to give the cars a once-over before they drive them off the ship.

“You’re just doing a quick visual inspection to make sure that whatever you’re driving isn’t already damaged,” McFadden said. “Because if I can catch it before we get off the ship, then [the responsibility] goes back to the ship or where it was loaded.”

A foreman oversees the operation, and a deckman stationed at the ship’s entrance serves as something of a traffic cop, giving drivers the green light when the ramp is clear.

When the cars come down the ramp and onto the dock, their vehicle identification numbers are scanned, along with the drivers’ port identification.

“It ties me to this vehicle,” McFadden said, as he stopped a Subaru Forester to be scanned. “So if anything comes up missing or is wrong, they know who they can go back to, to start asking questions.”

“Once you scan,” he added, “it’s on you.”

The drivers then take the cars to the processors’ parking lots, where designated spotters make sure they’re parked perfectly. The left tires go on yellow lines, measured to ensure precisely enough space for the car doors to swing all the way open with millimeters to spare between the door and the next car.

Theft isn’t as big a concern as it once was, because the cars arrive in “transport mode,” topping out at about 25 mph, with engines that can be turned off remotely. The lots are protected by guards, and terminal fences that don’t break as easily as in the movies.

Most automakers operate processing centers in the port, where incoming vehicles receive owner’s manuals, stereos and other accessories before being shipped to dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic states and beyond. All told about 1,100 people are employed directly in shipping autos at the port of Baltimore, according to the port administration.

Custom orders come through the port, too: a Land Rover for Michael Jordan, muscle cars for the “Fast & Furious” franchise, several vehicles for famous car-lover Jay Leno — even the truck that becomes Optimus Prime in the “Transformers” series.

McFadden’s favorite? A souped-up 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle, with an engine that revved like a race car. It was headed to a museum in Germany, he said.

“It was that nice Crayola blue with the white stripes,” he said. “The inside was amazing. It was immaculate. Somebody took care of that, that’s for sure.”

Mike Valentine, who has worked as a driver for 12 of his 13 years as a longshoreman, loved the Mercedes S550 the most: “That is a smooth automobile, finely made.”

Valentine said initially he couldn’t believe such a fun job existed.

“Y’all getting paid to do this?” he remembered asking on his first day.

It pays well. The top wage for senior longshoremen working auto operations is $32 a hour; the base is $20.

The longshoremen wear gloves to cover rings, watches and bracelets as a precaution, and they aren’t allowed to have chains or anything else dangling from their pants that could cause a scratch.

Heather Tedore, one of about 40 or 50 women in the 1,500-member local, said they longshoremen use their hands as door stops to keep from nicking the paint in tight spaces. After all, a bruise heals faster than the shame of being written up.

“We help each other,” Tedore said. “We strive for zero damage, zero accidents.”

Scott Senko, port captain in Baltimore for the NYK Line (formally Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha), repeated a car-shopping adage, applying it to the port’s auto operations.

“When you’re putting this much money into a vehicle,” he said, “you’d like to be the first one to put a scratch on that vehicle.”

Longshoremen get a mandatory two weeks of training before becoming drivers, with additional certifications required to operate some other types of equipment.

The sheer volume of different vehicles they drive is impressive, said Bill Wade, marine manager for Baltimore at CERES Marine Terminal. The stevedoring company coordinates shipments and hires and supervises longshoremen crews ranging from less than a dozen to several hundred, he said.

“These guys have to be able to drive over-the-road trucks, cars, excavators, bulldozers, cranes,” Wade said. “Anything and everything you can see that moves in this country, they have to be able to drive to get on and off a ship. It’s a very unique skillset.”

He attributed the port’s success in autos and ro/ro to the work ethic of the longshoremen.

“Our quality, our safety, our production ... that’s why the manufacturers and the steamship lines come here,” Wade said. “The guys take pride in their job, we give them a professional product, and it makes all the difference.”

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