Ships come into port at all hours of the night. High above Auckland’s twinkling lights, as the city slumbers, crane operator Willie Maipi is there to meet them.

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Willie Maipi arrives for work as a fiery orange-pink sunset blazes across Auckland.

As dusk falls, the cityscape lights up the city, glittering from the Sky Tower to the Harbour bridge. Maipi watches the sun fall, and rise again, from one of the steel giants silhouetted on the skyline.

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The port’s huge cranes dominate the Auckland skyline.

The port’s huge cranes dominate the Auckland skyline.

His ‘office’ is the cab of a 40-metre high crane, towering above the wharves of Waitematā Harbour.

Nearly a dozen ships call at the Ports of Auckland each week, bringing goods from all corners of the world. 

For much of the night, Maipi’s 1300 tonne crane shuttles back and forward above the dock, hoisting containers on and off the massive vessels. 

Willie Maipi in his glass-floored crane cab.

Willie Maipi in his glass-floored crane cab.

It’s the country’s biggest port, connecting New Zealand's regional economy to a global market and supplying Kiwi consumers with every kind of imported essential, and some luxuries. 

Up to 550 workers handle more than $25b worth of imports and exports each year, roughly 30 per cent of the country’s trade.

“Until all this happened with this [Covid 19] epidemic, I didn’t really think about how important we were,” Maipi says.

During lockdown, port workers had their temperatures checked at the entrance.

During lockdown, port workers had their temperatures checked at the entrance.

“Now, I’m thinking, wow, if we were to stop then the whole country would go into chaos.”

At around 5.30pm most nights, Maipi drives in behind the port’s red-painted wrought-iron fence on Tamaki Drive. He’s been a stevedore for nearly two decades, leaving his truck driving job when traffic gridlock got too stressful.

“I used to come in and unload and load containers. And I had some friends who worked here [who asked] why don’t I come down here and work. It was time for me to get off the roads.  That was 18 years ago and I’ve never looked back.”

At first, the late hours allowed wife Lesley to work while he took his two daughters to school. They are now 30 and 32, with children of their own, but Maipi decided to stick with the night shift.

“I loved it. You hear the story: it’s a job for life. Well, I believe that. I don’t think you’ll ever find another job like this.”

He’s done most of the jobs at the port, including cargo lashing, securing containers on the open deck, and driving the straddle carriers, which pick up and carry the freight.

Maipi boards the enormous container ship for an inspection of its load.

Maipi boards the enormous container ship for an inspection of its load.

“I’ve done a bit in the corner office, the supervisor, and it didn't really work out for me that job because I'm a more hands on sort of a guy.

“I think you get satisfaction out of completing a job. You think: ‘I've loaded that ship, I’ve discharged that ship.’

I suppose, to a lot of the guys [crane operator] is probably the pinnacle of the job.  A lot of them want to get up there.

Willie Maipi

Maipi, 55, arrives early to catch up with workmates, get changed into his safety gear and get a sense of the night’s workload.

“We'll just go through briefings and see what there is to be done. And then we’re pretty much straight into it.”

On Fergusson wharf, the giant hull of the Maersk Garrone rises out of the inky black waters. The Singapore-flagged ship arrived that morning from Brisbane, laden with containers. It used to take days to unload a vessel of that size - but Maipi and his team will do it within hours.

The Maersk Garrone arrived from Australia.

The Maersk Garrone arrived from Australia.

First, he boards the ship to inspect the load. He’s given a ‘map’ which numbers the rows and rows of coloured boxes. The Garrone can carry just over 4500 TEU -  these are 20-foot (about 6 metres)  containers, which each stand 8ft (about 2.5m) tall. They are stacked and secured to the ship with steel rods - called lashings - which can weigh up to 30kg each. Before crane operations can begin, they must be removed - a very physical job. Most wharfies start out as a lasher.

Tonight, there are 1300 containers to load and unload. Five cranes stand over the ship, and Maipi will work with his regular partner and old friend, Phil Hellesoe. 

“We’d do anything for each other,” the 46-year-old says.

After an hour on the ship, they’ll spend three hours in the cab, and then catch a snooze for an hour or two.

Maipi checks the load on board and uses a map to locate where the containers are stacked.

Maipi checks the load on board and uses a map to locate where the containers are stacked.

The cranes sit in a frame which can roll up and down the length of the quay on a rail track. Maipi climbs steps to the first floor, where a narrow lift takes him higher into the sky. A chill wind whips as he walks in the open across the steel grating to the tiny cabin.

The floor is made of thick glass so he can look between his legs at the containers beneath. Suspended on a trolley, it zips back and forth between the wharf and the ship.

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If you're not used to heights, it can be daunting. ... And then when you're moving across the ship back to the berth, that can be scary because you actually go quite fast, especially at night.

Willie Maipi

A spreader, rather than a hook, is lowered on top of the container and locks onto four points at the corner. Maipi works fast and his hand-to-eye co-ordination is astonishing. 

Far below, yellow straddle carriers, which look like vehicles from Star Wars, shuttle back and forth across the yard, dropping containers below the cranes. Their drivers sit sideways in their cab, 11 metres off the ground. Each container has a number, and a place on the dock. Robotic cameras and an automated system keep track of where every piece of cargo sits.

Straddle carriers move containers around the yard.

Straddle carriers move containers around the yard.

The dock rings with the wailing of sirens, clang of metal and the shouts of the straddle drivers as they pass each other.

“They’re my heroes,” Maipi says. “Without them, the crane can only go as fast as what the straddles bring and take containers away. It’s a hard job finding boxes out there.

Two straddle carrier drivers chat as they wait for a load to be moved.

Two straddle carrier drivers chat as they wait for a load to be moved.

“Without them this terminal wouldn't tick over as well -  I’m only  a little piece of that puzzle.”

Maipi loves the camaraderie of the night shift - it’s part of what keeps him there. 

It’s the friendships. You build those relationships for life. We all just seem to bond in this.

Willie Maipi

“You get to know their families, they get to know your family. We can relate to the things we miss out on with families and holidays.

“When there’s Easter, Anzac holidays, Christmas holidays, we're actually here working. All these ships are coming in and we'll work them whether it's Christmas or New Year's Eve.”

It can be an unhealthy lifestyle, and a few years ago Maipi noticed he was gaining weight. 

In the middle of a house renovation, he also  had trouble sleeping.

“I was at a weight of maybe 170kg and that’s through lack of sleep and I’d say not eating properly.  It does take a toll on your health. I had high blood pressure, I was on the verge of diabetes. 

I had to lose weight. I've got down to about 108kg.  And I felt good. So, I try and do something every morning when I get home. Walking the dogs or I was right into my boxing, I’ve got a bag out the back.

Willie Maipi

He sticks to green tea and water. “Coffee just wires you right up. Maybe because I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve kind of trained my body not to get tired.

“Once you start feeling like that, the night just seems to drag on, so you tend to keep yourself busy and active.”

The shift finishes as 7am. But if the crew works fast, they can finish early.  

Maipi arrives home with a box of veggies for his elderly neighbours.

Maipi arrives home with a box of veggies for his elderly neighbours.

Maipi drives his ute home through the deserted, pre-dawn streets. In the back is a box of veggies, he’ll drop off to a local pensioner. The headlights light the dark driveway as he unlocks the gate.

He’s greeted enthusiastically by his enormous St Bernard Lewi, and tiny Maltese Cooper. “I’d don’t make a lot of noise,” he says, but Lesley pokes her head out the back door, hair tousled from sleep, still in her nightdress.

The stevedore, classed an essential worker, built an outdoor shower to protect his family during lockdown.

The stevedore, classed an essential worker, built an outdoor shower to protect his family during lockdown.

To keep his family safe from Covid-19, Maipi built a cold shower in his yard. He strips off his work clothes, down to rugby shorts, as Lewi laps at the stream of water. 

“I’ll normally put the TV on and watch a bit of the news from CNN. Or if there’s enough light, take the dogs for a walk,” he says.

For the next few hours, he’ll potter around the house, before getting his head down around 10am, sleeping to mid-afternoon.

“It’s not a lot of sleep, even my wife says that, but it’s enough for me. It's not until I put my head down, [then] I'll just lights out, straight away. I’m used to it.”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: John Hartevelt

Executive Editor: Bernadette Courtney