How three nighttime photographers snuck aboard the abandoned ships of Suisun Bay
HIGHLIGHTS AND HAIR-RAISERS
A highlight of their journeys aboard the Mothball Fleet was stumbling across the sleek black Sea Shadow, a stealth ship, which was ensconced within a barge on Row G. Shrouded in secrecy, the angular vessel was developed by Lockheed for the U.S. Navy to test how low of a radar profile could be achieved, and it served as inspiration for a stealth ship featured in a James Bond film. According to the MARAD website, "Sea Shadow was constructed and tested under a high degree of secrecy; until the Navy made its existence public in 1993, all tests were conducted at night." The ship entered the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet in September 2006.
They also found their way aboard the USS Iowa, which bears the distinction of being the only U.S. Navy warship ever outfitted with a bathtub, so FDR could have a soak while crossing the Atlantic. While they didn't manage to go inside, an eerie photograph of three enormous guns on deck conveys the magnitude of the battleship.
One of Haeber's most cherished discoveries was a three-story-tall mural he photographed inside the SS President Lincoln, an American President Lines ship constructed in San Francisco in 1961. An early version of a containerized cargo vessel, the Lincoln doubled as a cruise ship catering to a small number of elite passengers, and remnants of the elegant interior décor remained. The ship has since been hauled to the scrap yard.
It wasn't always smooth sailing for the three urban explorers. Once they narrowly dodged a work crew aboard a ship — "but we saw or heard them before they saw us," Haefner said. Another time, while paddling back to the slough, they discovered their raft was punctured and had to manually pump air into it as they traveled. Then, at the tail end of their final journey to the Ghost Fleet, they found themselves fully illuminated by the dreaded patrol-boat searchlight for a full 10 seconds. They froze, convinced they'd been caught. But nothing happened, so they powered up and rowed like hell to get back ashore, and never returned.
Of course, posting interior photographs of the Mothball Fleet all over the Internet and delivering a public slideshow about their sneak-aboard escapades has attracted the attention of the federal government. "The Department of Homeland Security has been looking into it," said Haefner, who can tell by monitoring web traffic on his blog. "I know that they know." He also noticed hits from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Justice, but so far, none have come knocking.
In response to a Guardian request for comment about the Mothball Fleet photographers, Kim Riddle, a spokesperson for MARAD, e-mailed an official statement. "We were aware of the intrusion," she wrote. "We are concerned about the safety of individuals onboard our ships. This is a dangerous industrial site, and we take significant precautions for our own workers when they are onboard the fleet to make sure that areas are safe for them to enter. While trespassing on federal property, these photographers put themselves in a very dangerous position and could have been severely injured or killed from a fall or by entering an enclosed space that doesn't have enough oxygen. Since learning of this incident, we took additional security steps, reviewed our procedures, and reinforced training with our employees to stop these kinds of intrusions."