Port cranes play a vital role in day-to-day port operations. Without the help of these cranes, containers can’t be stacked in the yard or loaded on the vessel. There are two types of port cranes: quay cranes and yard cranes. 

  • Quay Cranes: These types of cranes are used to work on containers from ship to shore and shore to ship and are therefore also known as ship-to-shore cranes (STS). Quay cranes are located along the quayside where container ships are easily accessible.
  • Yard Cranes: These types of cranes are primarily located in the port’s container yard, and move laden containers from the yard to trailers. While there are several types of yard cranes, the most common ones are Rail-Mounted Gantry Cranes (RMG) and Rubber-Tired Gantry Cranes (RTG).

When it comes to ship-to-shore port cranes, there are two types: the high profile (with an A-frame) and the low profile. Though they function the same way, it is during the container port design process where the crane type is decided, based on suitability. 

The low profile crane features a fixed boom to load containers off and onto the vessel. It’s designed and used for scenarios where the seaport is near an airport so that aircrafts are not distracted or blocked by the cranes. 

On the other hand, high profile port cranes have a hinged boom that allows for easier ship navigation when berthing or leaving the dock.

Low-Profile Port Crane
High-Profile Port Crane

How are Port Cranes Powered?

Port cranes are typically powered by two types of motors: alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). Most port cranes are powered by power AC motors, as they generally offer higher torque than the DC alternative. 

Port cranes require several motors that enable specific crane functions. There are motors for moving the boom, gantry and trolley, as well as the hoisting maneuver. Moreover, each port crane is designed to handle different container ship classes.

Cranes are differently sized for Panamax, Post Panamax and Super Post Panamax ship classes. Larger port cranes are required for larger ships and therefore require a larger motor. According to Nidec, below are some common crane motor specifications and figures.

Motor TypePowerQuantity
Boom Motor100 – 500 kW1
Gantry Motor25 – 50 kW16 – 20
Trolley Motor20 – 80 kW2 – 4
Hoist Motor200 – 1000 kW2

How Much Can a Port Crane Lift?

Port cranes have a rated lifting capacity of about 40 – 80 metric tons on average. Ports have different setups around the world and certain quay cranes are able to lift heavier loads – some even up to 120 tons. 

A single hoist configuration with a single spreader can handle one 20’, 40’, 45’, or two 20’ containers. On the other hand, there is a dual hoist configuration with two spreaders that can handle 2 x 40’ and 45’ or 4 x 20’. This increases productivity greatly. 

Port cranes are measured by productivity, which is rated in “moves”. One move equates to an entire movement of a container from the quay onto the vessel or from the vessel onto the quay. 

A ‘move’ is influenced by the power and speed of the motors, as well as the lifting capacity of the port crane. Depending on the size of the vessel, a crane can do between 30 – 50 moves per hour. Multiple cranes can turn around a vessel in about 51 to 64 hours.

What is a Port Crane Operator?

While technological advancements in recent years have introduced several autonomous port equipment, port cranes typically require crane operators. 

The primary job of a port crane operator is to load and unload shipping containers from or onto a vessel. The job requires maximum concentration, precision, and excellent hand-eye coordination. 

Port crane operators sit inside a protective cockpit, also known as a cab. The cab is attached to the boom of the crane, giving them the best viewing angle for carrying out their tasks. 

port crane operator

Both hands control separate joysticks with multiple functions. With the help of stevedores and radio communication, crane operators collect the containers by using the spreader and ensuring all twist locks meet the container pockets before lifting.

The container is brought down to quayside or to a waiting truck which will bring the container to an assigned location. The reverse happens when loading containers on a vessel using cell guides for easy positioning.

How are Port Crane Operators Trained?

The best way to increase productivity is to train port crane operators to handle equipment safely and efficiently. Training is typically made available to the port crane operators by the crane manufacturer. 

While every port crane functions similarly, there are certain nuances that only the manufacturers will be able to provide guidance for. Therefore, training is usually conducted by the crane manufacturer. 

Here is a list of the topics that such a training covers:

  • Precise lifting
  • Safety guidelines
  • Equipment inspection
  • Use of hand signals
  • Major crane components  
  • Rigging guides

Training is provided to new operators, while experienced operators are sent for refresher courses. If the crane manufacturer is not in the country where the cranes were purchased, the port operator may opt to send a team to the nearest training facility of the manufacturer.

How Much Do Port Crane Operators Make?

In the US, a port crane operator makes about $45,000 per year, which equates to $3,750 on average per month. However, it’s important to note that port crane operator salaries depend on skill level and experience, as well as the type of port crane they are operating. 

An operator must also be able to climb, be comfortable in high elevations and work under pressure. The minimum educational requirement is typically a high school diploma. 

Being an efficient and effective port crane operator means being able to pick, carry, and swing the container without any issues.  A crane operator may also be required to work on other port equipment such as stackers, forklifts, and trucks.

Port Crane Manufacturers

There are many port crane manufacturers. The average ship-to-shore (STS) crane costs about $25 to $40 million, whereby rubber-tired gantry (RTG) cranes cost about $1 to $3 million. 


Hans Liebherr invented the tower crane in 1949. Today, the German-Swiss crane manufacturer builds STS cranes, rail-mounted and rubber tire gantry cranes, reach stackers, mobile harbor cranes, and dockyard cranes.


KoneCranes offers various port equipment. They are known for their high-quality STS cranes, rail-mounted, and rubber tire gantry cranes. KoneCranes are now working on an expansion to offer port automation equipment.


Kalmar started making STS cranes back in the 70’s and is now offering automated port equipment such as straddle carriers, rubber tire gantry cranes, and electric empty container handlers.

Weihua Cranes

Weihua Cranes manufacture STS cranes and rail-mounted gantry cranes. They are known to offer port cranes at an affordable price range. 


China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) is the largest port design and construction company in China, and is based in Beijing. They manufacture affordable port cranes, but are also known to work on other global infrastructure projects.

A Short History of Harbour and Port Cranes

Up until the 1950s, ships were mainly loaded as bulk cargo. This was very slow, labor-intensive and was also prone to pilferage and damage. Vessel schedules were not fixed and would affect subsequent port calls.

Goods we also loaded inefficiently, which meant longer vessel turnaround times. Cargo was placed in pallets and transferred onto a cargo net and lifted by crane from the dock to ship.  

old port loading methods

Once in the vessel, it had to be properly fastened in order to avoid damage in transit. This concept of loading changed when standardized containers were introduced. Having standardized containers meant that specialized port cranes could be constructed to handle the loading process more effectively and efficiently.

These port cranes were designed to handle mainly 20’, 40’ and 45’ containers. Even today, these ship-to-shore cranes continue to play an important role in vessel turnaround and overall supply chain efficiency. 

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Gerrit Poel

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Gerrit is a certified international supply chain management professional with 16 years of industry experience, having worked for one of the largest global freight forwarders.

As the co-founder of freightcourse, he’s committed to his passion for serving as a source of education and information on various supply chain topics.