The task: Corraling one small city of people off a ship and loading on another one. The time the gangway is actually empty: 45 minutes -- maybe.
In the narrow stretch of concrete between the docked Carnival Fantasy and the State Ports Authority's warehouses, workers on foot and in forklifts scramble to make it all happen.
Shipping agent Gary Santos wears a purple polo shirt -- already speckled with sweat by morning -- and holds a walkie-talkie.
He likens the whole operation to a ballet and describes himself as its choreographer. He ferries sick returning passengers to local medical care. And recently he arranged for a son whose passport didn't arrive by departure time to meet his parents in the Bahamas for the return trip.
Santos escorts a host of characters without port credentials onto the Fantasy -- a man with a briefcase who's there to tune the piano; a master of ceremonies with his sash in hand, ready to officiate a wedding; the flower lady, toting blossoms up the gangway.
On days such as this -- turnaround cruise calls with only a few hours between a debarkation and an embarkation, and a population the size of Folly Beach on each -- Santos arrives on the waterfront before the sun.
He's not alone. More than 200 people dance in this ballet, each with a unique move to get the ship and its revolving cities of passengers in and out of Charleston with as little disruption to the real city as possible.
Carnival's decision to make Charleston one of its home ports marked the first time in the city's history that a ship would call on the passenger terminal at least once a week.
With that single announcement, the number of annual cruise calls more than doubled, just as city and maritime leaders moved forward in planning a complete overhaul of cruise operations.
With that single announcement, the grand plan all made sense.
The Fantasy returns from its Caribbean sailing this June day and docks around 6 a.m. About 20 ports authority employees arrive an hour earlier to prepare the terminal for 2,200 people and all their suitcases and souvenirs.
Cruise and parking coordinator Kirsten Parsley watches from a golf cart on Union Pier Terminal, just north of the ship, where she waits for the 2,600 new passengers to trickle in.
"They pack a lot too," she says.
About 60 officers, city and port police, position themselves down the mile-long stretch from the interstate exit to the docks. They direct drivers into the gate to drop off people or luggage or to store their vehicles.
Cars pass through a document-inspection tent, where officials check IDs and boarding passes, all within eyeshot of BMW X5s parked in shiny lines, ready for export.
Ports authority Police Chief Lindy Rinaldi says officers keep an eye on regular port operations, luxury cars included, in case of curious visitors. As she wheels her patrol cruiser through the terminal, she says she understands why some people seem prone to explore.
"You get to see a marine terminal and take a cruise," Rinaldi says. "A lot of folks, they've never seen anything like this before."
By 9 a.m., the first wave of departing vacationers gathers outside the U.S. Customhouse, directly across from the passenger terminal, waiting for shuttles and taxis. Wearing T-shirts and fresh tans, their arms looped around suitcase handles, they sit on the stone steps of the ornate building.
Others still shuffle through the terminal, a few donning hats made of balloons. About 65 employees for Intercruises, a company that specializes in handling turnaround cruises, wear white blouses and blue ties and position themselves throughout the building to help ease the process.
They clear the gangway, give directions and help passengers find luggage. Although supervisor Gene Bayne would rather not explain it this way, their job, essentially, is herding people.
"We try to keep them happy and moving," Bayne says. "They're about to return to the doldrums of life."
They work to direct the crowd as quickly as possible, but as the debarking passengers clear, the inevitable three or four suitcases remain behind.
"I've seen walkers left," Bayne says. "How they got out of this building, I don't know."
Supplies in, garbage out
Back at the ship, two crew members in man-lifts apply fresh coats of white paint to the side of the Fantasy.
Port employees hook up fresh water piped in from the city, 1,500 tons of it, or the equivalent of about 24 backyard swimming pools, while an environmental services company carts away the waste water inside a tanker truck.
A local vendor pulls up in a small boat to pump $375,000 worth of fuel into the ship, while laborers remove 2,000 pounds of recyclable trash.
About 50 longshoremen handle the loading and unloading of everything from frozen broccoli and hamburger buns to luggage.
International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 President Ken Riley calls the cruise business welcome work in a gradually recovering economy, and also the only time his laborers interact with the general public.
"It's a significant hit for us as far as man-hours and getting people to work on a consistent basis," he says. "It actually fills in the gap."
Jamshid Pezeshk, cruise operations director with Metro Cruise Services, hires union laborers to do everything from clerical work to transferring supplies. They move 450 tons of cargo this day alone, everything from meat and produce purchased locally to gift-shop supplies and liquor from a warehouse in Miami.
"All the elements in this unit have to work together for this ship to sail at 4 o'clock, and it's not an easy job," he says. Behind him, workers steer forklifts stacked high with palettes of supplies across the small stretch of space.
"This terminal is tough, because it's not really a cruise terminal," he adds.
Pezeshk lives in the San Diego area and vows to move here if the State Ports Authority, as planned, converts a larger building farther north on Union Pier into its cruise terminal.
Just yards away, up the gangway and into the galley, Fantasy crew members hustle over vats of ribs, slabs of three-layer chocolate cake with cream icing and rows of dainty plates with a salmon and pear appetizers.
On the wall hangs a recipe for melting chocolate cake, the ship's specialty, that can serve 1,000. Its ingredients include 70 pounds of semi-sweet chocolate, 70 pounds of butter and 700 fresh eggs.
The Fantasy's hotel director Mark Hoffman sits in his office around the corner from the ship's casino. Loud and gregarious with a New York accent, he oversees 100 kitchen crew, 185 dining room workers, 58 bar staff and 180 housekeepers.
"When you're floating down the ocean, you can't call up somebody and say, 'Send me 500 gallons of milk, because we're running short,' " Hoffman says.
The success of his sailing depends on what happens now, on that tiny stretch of concrete between the Fantasy and the streets of Charleston, where, as he speaks, the ballet unfolds.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or email@example.com.