Ghost Fleet wanderers

How three nighttime photographers snuck aboard the abandoned ships of Suisun Bay

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Scott Haefner, Stephen Freskos, and Jon Haeber aren't the types to stand out in a crowd. Haefner is a web developer, Freskos supervises projects for an engineering firm, and Haeber has a desk job at a company that helps businesses hit high on Google — three straight-laced Bay Area professionals who blend readily into the corporate world.

But everyone's got their thing — a way to break out of bounds, or scratch the itch of some incessant curiosity.

For these three friends in their late-20s to mid-30s, their thing entails prowling around in rundown deserted places by the light of the full moon, at times taking great pains to avert detection by security patrols. "We go into places that most people don't go," Haefner says. They've been traipsing into the unknown and documenting their discoveries together for years, motivated as much by art as adrenaline.

This past May, after weighing the consequences, they publicized one of their boldest excursions yet: Sneaking aboard the Mothball Fleet in Suisun Bay to spend entire weekends roaming the bowels of the mildewed vintage ships, while dodging the beams of patrol-boat searchlights.

Unlike many nocturnal wanderers magnetically drawn to abandoned spaces — squatters, taggers, or scrappers, for instance — they don't break in, vandalize, or steal. Instead, they adopt the same sense of reverence in decaying, chemical-laden industrial places that conscientious hikers assume on backwoods trails. They shoot night photos with professional quality gear, occasionally using flashlights to achieve a technique called light painting.

Haefner, Freskos and Haeber consider themselves advanced practitioners in the art of urban exploration (a.k.a. urbex or UE), an underground activity that's grown trendier as it draws in adventuresome novices. Now that they've publicized their caper aboard the Mothball Fleet, however, they've also come under the watchful eye of the feds.

 

EXPIRATION DATE

At first they thought it was a pipe dream. Doubting their ability to access the Mothball Fleet was saying a lot, considering they'd once snuck onto the Vandenberg Air Force Base and wandered amid abandoned missile silos, absorbing the gravity of the military history those Cold War artifacts represented. Another time they'd managed a nighttime excursion to Neverland Ranch, the famed private amusement park of the late Michael Jackson.

But the ghost ships moored at Suisun Bay seemed out of their league. The rows of hulking, government-owned vessels were locked up and berthed offshore, surrounded by a security headquarters and a shoreline barricade plastered with "No Trespassing" signs. Patrol boats equipped with searchlights circled the docks 24 hours a day, and the prospect of climbing aboard without being spotted seemed crazy.

But then they got word that the last of the aging ships would soon be towed away and destroyed. For Haeber, the history nut of the bunch, this changed everything. "It was about the urgency of making sure these ships were documented," he explained. "Getting them in the current state that they're in is so important."

Alternatively known as the Mothball Fleet and the Ghost Fleet, the ships are part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a collection of cargo ships, tankers, and military auxiliaries overseen by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD). Created in 1946 to be ready for deployment in case a national emergency arose, the fleet consisted of 2,277 ships at its height in 1950, strategically stationed at eight anchorages nationwide. For most of the vessels, the call to service never came, and they declined into obsolescence. By April, the entire fleet had dwindled to just 178 ships, at dock in Suisun Bay; Fort Eustis, Va.; and Beaumont, Texas.

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