Red Hook Container Terminal

What’s in there, how it works

Red Hook Container Terminal

COVID19 update:

NYC's maritime industry is often on the frontline responding to a crisis, and the COVID19 pandemic was no different in that regard.  As food pantries sprang up to feed people, Red Hook Terminals (RHT) reached out to donate pineapples, which are imported into the port.  Red Hook Facebook groups lit up with joy about the pineapples with recipes and photos.  The effort has expanded to other fruit

Red Hook gets one of its signature icons – gantry cranes at sunset – from the neighborhood’s largest maritime facility, the Red Hook Container Terminal.  The gantry cranes roll up and down on railroad tracks and load and unload ships and barges.

This port is in the middle of the long ribbon of Port Authority property that runs from Atlantic Avenue to Wolcott Street along the Buttermilk Channel.

The company Red Hook Terminals operates the containerport on 65 acres spread from Baltic Street to Bowne Street. This includes Piers 9A, 9B and 10, a sea of asphalt zoned for container stacks, plus several buildings (Crane Shop, Mechanics Shop, executive offices, and a long pier shed on pier 9B).

A sign on the Van Brunt Street fence at Hamilton Avenue says “Red Hook Shipping.” That is not another name for this port, it is a business that exports used vehicles to Haiti. More on that in a video in English and in Creole narrated by Christie Dorestant. She is Haitian-American and was a PortSide intern during summer 2016.

What is being shipped in and out is changeable, as is the nature of things maritime. At the time of writing, September, 2016, the port is getting busier with incoming containerships often passing exiting ones in the Buttermilk Channel. The goods come in “boxes” (containers) and as “break bulk” (not in boxes).

 The “Heineken boat,” a CMA ship, brings beer and spirits from Europe and is a “RTW” Round the World service. Your breakfast banana may arrive in Red Hook on the weekly Seaboard ship coming from the west coast of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Seaboard imports fresh produce, bananas and plantains, and mangos from the Domincan Republic. Those come in “reefer” (refrigerated) boxes that get plugged in right away. More on that later. 

Red Hook Container Terminal Red Hook Container Terminal

One section of the yard, roughly near Kane Street, is full of new sections of bridge deck for the Verrazano Bridge. Next to those are modular units being used to construct a hotel in Willamsburg. 

Red Hook Container Terminal

Pieces for the Calatrava-designed WTC transportation hub were also imported here.  RHCT’s proximity to the center of the city makes it a great place to import oversize items like these as the key trucking distance of “the last mile” to the final destination is short.

Red Hook Container Terminal

Humbler construction materials such as “aggregate” (sand and stone) also arrive here on barges and are trucked out.

The main barge action at RHCT is the container barges, the “NEW YORK” and the "NEW JERSEY” that move back and forth between those states twice a week, timed to the arrival of ships. Imports arriving in Brooklyn are shipped to New Jersey, to the toe hold of this port that is in Port Newark. Export cargo comes from New Jersey and leaves Brooklyn on a vessel. There are very few empty containers moving around.

Getting the boxes off the ship and into the yard is an industrial ballet.  “We average over 30 moves per hour, one of the highest rates in the port” says CEO Mike Stamatis.  

Red Hook Container Terminal Red Hook Container Terminal

The gantry crane operator lifts the box, trolleys it horizontally until it is over land, then lowers it onto a “hustler,” a tractor trailer truck that stays inside the port. Hustlers pull up to the ship in a perpetual loop so the gantry never has to wait.  The loaded hustler heads to its designated field in the yard where field numbers sprayed on the asphalt tell them where the box should go.  

Red Hook Container Terminal

Next, a huge fast-moving, fast-pivoting machine called a reach stacker (or top loader) lifts the box off the hustler and puts it in the designated field. There are nine of these monsters that lift 9,000lbs and cost about $700,000 a piece.  The empty hustler loops back under the gantry crane alongside the ship and continues the cycle while the reach stacker zooms off to the next field spot. There are no lane demarcations, and all this equipment goes pretty fast when the ballet is at full tilt.

Red Hook Container Terminal

Some boxes are scanned as they come off the ship by US Customs and Border Patrol, and some are opened at the inshore end of the Pier 9B shed to inspect incoming cargo for bombs, drugs, and invasive species. Sometimes Customs finds contraband (parts from stolen cars being one example) in exiting cargo.

Red Hook Container Terminal

As to how the stuff gets out of here, truckers show up for pick-ups without appointment. They clear security at the Hamilton Avenue gate (no TWIC card, no entry.  The TWIC card is a national security consequence of 9/11) and drive straight into the truck lane and onto the scale. Checkers runs the scale. “We get ‘em out in less than an hour. One hour or less is turn time,” says Assitant Terminal Manager Frankie Jordan.  Checkers locate the boxes for truckers picking up and designate where incoming boxes will go.  As to how they know where to put them so the next box you need is not on the bottom of a stack, “we are still working on that” jokes Frankie.

Red Hook Container Terminal

Mike Guilano, head of the Crane Shop. (c) Carolina Salguero

In addition to loading and unloading cargo, staff on the terminal repair and maintain all the equipment. Workers in the Crane Shop (orange brick building at foot of Degraw shop) tend the 4 working gantry cranes in the port. They “break out the cranes” before a ship arrives and put it all back after the loading ends. They grease, replace cables, do the annual testing and quadrennials.  “You need a background in computer and electronics to get into this now,” says Mike Guilano, head of the Crane Shop.  He started on the waterfront in 1974, learned cranes on the job and is very enthusiastic about his work and the port. There is a bunkroom on the 2nd floor so workers can sleep over the garage and be on call 24/7, much like firefighters, in case of a crane breakdown when a ship is unloading at night. 

The Mechanic Shop (dark blue building at foot of Bowne Street) repairs all the other machinery: the 26 hustlers, the forklifts (two large ones that can also lift containers and 8-10 small units, a fleet with lift capacity from 400-30,000lbs), and a fleet of beater vehicles without license plates that zip around the port on errands.  

The stevedoring workers are with the ILA (the International Longshoremen’s Association).  There are some colorful nicknames (Peewee who used to sing over the PA system, Slick, Frankie Fish, Big Sal). Rates for their pay and for the cost to load and unload ships is determined by negotiations with that union.  Port workers include line handlers, crane operators, hold man (works in the hold of ship), drivers of hustlers and reach stackers, longshoremen, checkers in the truck gates at the scales, the repair crew in Crane Shop and Mechanic Shop, plus the executive and administrative staff.


Red Hook Shipping company

Christie Dorestant, Haitian-American and PortSide summer intern at Red Hook Shipping, 2016

A sign on the Van Brunt Street fence at Hamilton Avenue says “Red Hook Shipping.” That is not another name for this port, it is a business that exports used vehicles to Haiti. More on that in an upcoming text (in English) and a video (in Creole), work done by Christie Dorestant. She is Haitian-American and was a PortSide intern during summer 2016.

In 2016, this port expected to move 55,000 containers, plus 20,000 on the barge. The federal government, the Port Authority and the operator were working to increase the activity at this port.  September 2016, a new container barge service started, supported by the Port Authority, open to any shipper with cargo originating in Brooklyn, Queens or Long Island that is destined for a vessel in Port Newark/Elizabeth -- and vice versa for cargo discharging from vessel in Port Newark/Elizabeth destined for east of the Hudson final delivery. For example, any vessel calling at Port Newark Container Terminal that has cargo destined to or originating from that port can use the barge versus a truck move. In 2015, the federal Maritime Administration (MARAD) part of the DOT, designated Red Hook as part of the Marine Highway, a federal system to move more goods by water within the USA. The USA only moves 2% by water, compared to 44% in Europe and 62% in China. (2011 MARAD figures).

Red Hook Container Terminal

This photo (of a photo hanging in the offices of the Red Hook Container Terminal) shows the transition from break-bulk shipping to containerization in the late 1950s.

Red Hook Terminals is also the current operator of SBMT (South Brooklyn Marine Terminal) in Sunset Park. That facility is planned to be a port supporting the construction of offshore wind.

Red Hook Container Terminal

Bananas are big business for Del Monte 

We promised you more about bananas

Here is the possible route of your breakfast banana as explained by Mike Stamatis, CEO of Red Hook Terminals.  “The bananas make a 7-10 day sea voyage. They are all green “hard as hammers.” They are kept at 56 degrees to prevent ripening. They are in reefer containers that are individually plugged in aboard the ship. Seaboard ships have over 300 plugs. The containers come off the ship and are plugged in at Red Hook. The shipping line has a grace period of a 2-3 days where storage is free, after that they have to pay demurrage.  Most leave within a few days. Some go as far away as Massachusetts… depends where the ripeners are… Banana Distributors is a ripener business across from the Hunts Point market. There are ripeners in all five boroughs.”

So we looked up the company “Banana Distributors,” and see they launched at about the time our MARY A. WHALEN in the 1930s. They’ve got a great history page, and here’s a story on how bananas get to NYC bodegas.

RHCT's Sandy story

When asked about Sandy, Mike Stamatis and Frankie Jordan speak in unison, “we were here that night.”  Mike, “we were back to work quickly. We have two diesel cranes, the only two diesel cranes left in port, so those could work even though the power was out... This port is important in times of emergency, Sandy, if bridges and tunnels are closed. NYC has roughly a 3-day food supply… After Sandy, we sent a barge to Phili to get containers that were diverted from a CMA vessel that could not call here. A CMA ship could not get to NY due to Sandy and was diverted to Norfolk and Phili.”

“We had generators for over a year to power the Liebherr cranes (on pier 10 in the Buttermilk). We had to try and find two 2K generators to run those cranes. We got them down south, rented them.”

The diesel cranes are the two 2 green ones on the vast pier 9A, a finger pier (juts out into the channel at 90 degrees to land) that has no shed. This pier handles most of the break bulk cargo, the container barges, the ship exporting vehicles to Haiti.  The Liebherr cranes are on Pier 10, a marginal pier (the dock runs parallel to the water of Buttermilk Channel) that is the containership berth.  Pier 10 has a pair of retired cranes (one orange, one blue) and a pair of active red, white and blue ones.


Why did the raccoon cross the road? To get to Gowanus Nursery (which has since closed). Tucked in around all the busy port activity is some wildlife.  The list seen by PortSide staff during our long tenure inside the port includes a possum, multiple raccoons (including one with no tail), a seal, night herons, swallows, seagulls, various kinds of ducks, Canada and Brant geese, bats, mini mice, and hordes of feral cats.  “We have too many cats,” says Mike Stamatis, and it’s true. An abandoned day-old kitten was bottle fed and raised by the PortSide crew.  We dubbed her Mighty Mo for her toughness.

PortSide NewYork was located in RHCT, aboard the Mary Whalen, from fall 2006 to Spring 2015, minus two stints in the Navy Yard and program visits to other locations.  Our time there gives us first-hand experience of the operations described in this report.

Red Hook Container Terminal
Red Hook Container Terminal