How three nighttime photographers snuck aboard the abandoned ships of Suisun Bay
"It can be kind of a challenge getting on," Haefner explained. "We're risking ourselves, obviously, but we also brought a bunch of expensive camera gear." He was the first one to climb aboard the Iris, reaching high to grab onto a bumper that he could then pull himself up on to gain access to the ship. While Freskos kept watch, Haeber handed the gear up to Haefner bit by bit. Once all three were aboard with their backpacks and camera equipment, they hauled up the raft and deflated it.
The Iris was commissioned in 1944. In 1970, it responded to the scene of an oil-rig fire in Galveston, Texas. In 1987, it assisted with cleanup operations in Prince William Sound after the Exxon-Valdez spill. It was decommissioned in 1995, so their entrance likely marked the first time anyone other than MARAD employees had been aboard in 16 years.
A handy feature of ghost ship exploration is that once aboard a ship, it's possible to access any ship along the entire row, thanks to gangplanks connecting the vessels. So while many of the mothballed vessels were completely secured, there was always the chance that the next one down would have an unlocked entranceway. Part of the ethos of urban exploration is to avoid breaking anything, so they only accessed the interiors of unsecured ships. "They are fairly vigilant about keeping doors locked up tight," Haefner said. "But there are just so many doors."
Haeber found a single open door on the SS Exxon Gettysburg, a mammoth oil tanker constructed in 1957, and entered the ship alone, enthralled. The interior, he later wrote, smelled like a mix of mold, benzene, and soggy newspaper. He turned on his flashlight and began tiptoeing through the corridors and peering into the cabins. "They were like time capsules, untouched since the 1970s," Haeber said.
"Some of the ships were 15 stories deep, like a maze," Freskos said. "We'd get lost inside." The trio split from Row F before sunrise and managed to get back to the slough without any mishaps, but they returned on a handful of other occasions with sleeping bags and enough food and water to last a weekend. On those subsequent journeys, they'd seek out places to sleep, often crashing in the once-luxurious captain's quarters. They slept by day, so that entire nights could be devoted to wandering in awe of the decayed, post-apocalyptic industrial environs, shooting hundreds of photographs.
They visited rooms where crews once hung out playing board games, still littered with cigarettes. They photographed molded interiors, dark cavernous stairwells, engine parts, navigational equipment, and abandoned cabins with peeling wallpaper. "We found personal letters, cards, things people left," Haefner said. "We were always looking for signs of life." They wandered through mess halls, engine rooms, bathrooms, galleys, even chilling places with operating chairs and overhead spotlights. They climbed around on the decks in the open night air, wandering through derricks and cranes.
The old ships would make eerie creaking noises when the tide rushed in, and there was always that mild sensation that one experiences on a boat, of things not staying still. "It was like a cacophony of sound when the current was coming in," Freskos recalled. Hawks, osprey, and owls nested aboard some of them, so the creaking noises were sometimes accompanied by screeching birds of prey.
"The place is steeped in history," Freskos said. "I'd always think of what this room was used for, or what went on here, when people were experiencing the suffering, craziness, and nervousness of war."