How three nighttime photographers snuck aboard the abandoned ships of Suisun Bay
The ships that have been moored at Suisun Bay for decades have long since deteriorated, and now they're being hauled off to the scrap yard bit by bit, though the spot will continue to serve as an anchorage for newer additions to the National Defense Reserve Fleet.
Some were constructed in the World War II era, while others date back to the 1960s and 1970s. While many are tankers or merchant vessels, there are also warships, relics of history deployed in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm.
Many of the roughly 70 dilapidated ships have become ecological hazards, leaching toxins and heavy metals into the tidal estuary, which flows into San Francisco Bay. The monumental task of removing and dismantling them began late last year, providing badly needed blue-collar jobs on Mare Island, in the economically depressed city of Vallejo.
By 2017, the last of the ghost ships will have met with torch cutters. At least one will be salvaged: the USS Iowa (BB-61) — a 1938 lead battleship that shuttled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from the Tehran Conference during World War II — will be donated and turned into a museum.
Aside from being scrapped, outmoded ships meet with a variety of fates. Some are donated for educational use while others are deliberately sunk to create artificial reefs. Still others are used for target practice in the Navy's sink-at-sea live-fire training exercises program (SINKEX).
"We saw that these things were going to be gone," Haefner said. "So we planned it out."
Haeber examined satellite imagery on Google Earth. Freskos, who'd spent time at sea, studied the tidal patterns. The three scoured the Internet for online photos of the Ghost Fleet. They conducted a scouting mission with binoculars in hand, and gained a sense of when they could take advantage of windows of opportunity between the 30-minute patrol boat rounds.
Long before they even discovered a navigable slough that snaked through a marsh into Suisun Bay or spotted the Craigslist post advertising an inflatable raft for sale, Freskos went up to shoreline gate where the "No Trespassing" signs were posted. He peered through at the tantalizing rows of mothballed ships, and hollered as loud as he could. Nobody responded.
DECAYED TIME CAPSULES
After the months of planning left them confident that it was indeed possible to access the Mothball Fleet, the trio of photographers set out for their first visit, with about 700 pounds of gear in tow. They split the cost of a 12-foot inflatable Fish Hunter raft with a Minn Kota trolling motor. They carried the raft and their gear through a muddy expanse to a marshy spot where the low-profile craft could be set into a narrow slough, safely out of view.
"We always went on or exited at nighttime," Haefner said. "We would go on nights near the full moon so we could take pictures. It makes it look even more ghostly."
Their first target was Row F, a line of ships docked in a straight shot from where the slough filtered into the bay. They maneuvered down the narrow channel in their raft, dodging submerged obstacles along the way. Keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the security boat, they started rowing once they reached the open water, and managed to bridge the 800-foot distance to the first ship.
"Our plans were kept secret to all except our loved ones," Haeber wrote in an online account of that first excursion. "Nobody, other than my girlfriend, knew exactly where I was that weekend. For all intents and purposes, I was on a fishing trip with some friends."
"Keep Off" signs announcing an invisible 500-foot barrier that was not to be breached were affixed to the hull of every ship. The intruders maneuvered their raft between two Coast Guard cutters, Planetree and Iris, and tied up.