Juneau longshoremen pull their weight

11/3/2012 8:15 AM
By Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — At the beginning of each May, longshoreman Iver Nore leaves his hometown of Wrangell for Juneau, accompanied by Gracie, his golden retriever. Nore is one of the eight Juneau "A-Card" longshoremen who work the cruise ship season, tying up and casting off each boat that comes to any of the local ports.

Nore got his start in the industry when he was a 19-year-old, when Wrangell was shipping over 400 million board feet of lumber a year. Later he worked in Craig and Klawock, though, like Wrangell, the timber industries declined, and with them, jobs. Most recently Nore worked in Dutch Harbor, a port where many hopeful longshoremen get their experience. During his 10-year stint in Dutch Harbor, Nore continuously put in for a transfer to Juneau. Finally, in 2006, six of the A-Cards in Juneau retired, and Nore and Gracie began their annual pilgrimage.

"Longshoremen is a general trade," explained Dennis Young, the president of Juneau's chapter of International Longshore Warehouse Union and the Southeast Alaska committeeman for the Alaska Longshore Division, the executive board that oversees the whole state's operations. "Within that trade you have skilled duties that transpire and take place."

There are crane and forklift operators, utility people that load and unload cargo, truck driver, and dispatchers. Anyone working on the process of tying up, unloading, loading and casting off a ship is considered longshoremen.

"Everybody that works on the waterfront has to have a Transportation Worker Identification Card," Young said. Then, to be eligible for a longshoremen job, Young said, "An applicant has to apply and go through background checks, including a finger print."

Assuming one passes, he or she begins as a "causal," that is, someone that is on-call.

"Everyone starts off as a casual," Nore said. Once sufficiently experienced, a longshoreman is granted "B-Card" status. In Juneau, there are four seasonal B-Carders, who mostly perform the cargo work.

"They move cargo form ship to shore side and vice versa," Nore said. "It's illegal for foreigners to move cargo from a foreign-flagged vessel onto land."

If an A-Card position opens up, which includes the duties of tying up and casting off the ships, a B-Carder can move up, or, like in Nore's case, someone can transfer from another port to fill the position. In Juneau there are eight A-Carders.

A typical day for them begins around 5:30 a.m. Two A-Carders act as dispatchers, voted to their positions at the end of the previous season. They rotate in two weeklong shifts, communicating with a company that communicates with each ship, to know just when that ship will be arriving. The dispatcher then calls six of the A-Carders to work.

"If a ship comes in at 6, we get called in at 5:30," Nore said. Ships generally arrive on the half hour, four in a row. Six of the men (they are all males) have to be ready and waiting for each ship.

There's a specific strategy to whom the dispatcher calls in, and what position each A-Carder works. It's based on how many hours they have worked, as an attempt to maintain an equality of hours.

"There's three guys on the bow and three on the stern," Nore said. "The guys with the least amount of time are on the bow, because it comes in first."

Sometimes, as a few of the ships have larger lines and require more manpower, four people will work each end of the ship.

As the boats remain in Juneau for a majority of the day, the men may have a few hours' break. Often they drive to the port where the first ship that day will be casting off, nap in their vehicles or toss a ball for Gracie.

Then the castoffs begin.

"Some mornings you won't tie up, but you might be on the cast off," Nore said. "If you're not on the top of the list than you're not on the cast-offs. It's like birds when they're flying south, switching leaders."

Some ships don't leave until after 10 p.m., and then the day begins again the next morning. Hence the naps.

The process of tying up and casting off is relatively simple; it's just dangerous and requires a lot of strength. The ship crew throws a small metal ball, called a monkey fist, to the three or four A-Cards on shore. The monkey fist is attached to a ¼-inch heaving line, which can be up to a couple hundred feet.

"One person can pull that," Young said, "But once that's tied off to the tag line," which is a ¾-inch 20-30 foot line attached to one of the ships main lines, the rest of the crew has to step in.

Each main line has an eye, and the main lines can be up to 12 to 14 inches wide. The main lines are heavy on their own, but they're thrown out into the water, becoming saturated. Lines that are older and frayed absorb more water. Add to that a low or minus tide, and the work becomes more difficult. Some of the main lines are made with components that sink.

Typically there are eight main lines on each ship. At each end of each port is a permanent metal bollard, a round contraption with two ears. The eyes of the main lines are hooked onto the bollard. Pulling them from the water and onto the bollards is where the hard work comes in. The men form a line and work hand over fist. The main lines are attached to a winch on the ship, and they are strategically placed on the ships to allow for maneuvering. Occasionally, with ships with larger lines, a forklift operator assists in the process.

"Then we leave and the utility guys, the B-Cards, they put the gangways in, the ramps (passengers) come up and down on," Nore said.

There's usually one B-Card worker per ship. Nore explained that the B-Cards are essentially working all day, as the tides come in and out and the ramps have to be repositioned. They are also responsible for loading any cargo, like food or luggage from passengers that have missed a previous castoff and have flown to another town to catch up with their ship.

When a ship leaves, the same process happens in reverse. The crew catches the monkey fist, slacks the winch, and the A-Carders unhook and toss the main lines into the water.

"They prefer you to be really fast. They could get the line caught in the (propeller)," Nore said. "Once it's in the water they want it back on the ship lickety split."

This process continues, day in and day out, for five months, through the end of September. Two men per day often have the full day off, and one day a week the earliest boat doesn't arrive until noon, the day Nore says he calls a "sleep in day." At the end of the season they have a meeting and vote in two new dispatchers.

Though the work can be arduous, and the hours long, both Nore and Young enjoy it.

"I like being outside," Nore said, though admitted this past summer wasn't exactly the most fun with all the rain.

"I just love it," Young said, though he knows firsthand how dangerous the work can be. During his first summer in Juneau, one of the main lines he was hauling snapped, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees. "It was the first time the orthopedic surgeon had ever seen an ACL in three pieces. Those lines are that dangerous. Every time I fear for my life."

Young explained that it's a very physical job. He said that with low tides and other factors like larger main lines, three men can be pulling upwards of more than 250 pounds.

"You're tired after pulling eight lines," Nore said. "When there's four ships in, your arms are pretty well rubber when you're done."

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