Adventures in the Abandoned Ships of Suisun Bay

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By Jonathan H

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Stephen Freskos and I were standing half a mile from the Suisun Bay shoreline with binoculars in hand. The sun was sinking into the western horizon, silhouetting the ships that stood before us. It had long been a plan of ours to visit these ships, but we knew getting on them with permission wouldn’t be the right way to shoot them.

“The security boat goes by once every thirty minutes,” Stephen mused. “We’ll need to time our exit from the slough right. We can’t waste time.”

The slough was a long finger of water that would serve as our sole route in and out of the Mothball Fleet. On our walk out, we surmised that it was as deep as six feet and as shallow as six inches. A trail followed the length of the slough for approximately a half-mile. After that, we reached an impenetrable blanket of reeds, moats, and muddy quicksand that extended another half mile to open water.

“We’ll have to time the tides,” I added. I knew that a fully loaded boat would drag bottom at six inches. Anything shallower and the boat wouldn’t move at all. Between our gear and our body weight, the boat would be carrying a cargo of about 700 lbs.

The two of us sat out there for an hour or more, ticking off checklists in our craniums; planning contingencies; confirming the security boats’ timetables. In urbex parley, it’s known as scouting. We wouldn’t be visiting the fleet then, but we were closer to realizing its potential that night. As it got dark, area lights on the rows of ships flickered on; security boats tested their spotlights. It would be risky, but we knew then that it was possible. The two of us packed up our long lenses and binoculars and followed the trail back to the road.

Once we knew it was possible, it was time to get a boat. Any simple boat wouldn’t work. In addition to tidal concerns, portability and silence were paramount. Though a gas-powered motor would have been preferable for its power and speed, we knew immediately that an electric trolling motor was the only way to go; and even though a solid skiff wouldn’t pose the problem of punctures, we knew that an inflatable raft was our only option. A solid boat, tied up along the rows, would have been highly suspicious to roving security patrols. We needed to take our boat with us, stow it away in a well-hidden locker, and re-inflate it for our return trip. We also needed the motor; relying on rowing would not only have attracted attention, but it also would have been impossible when tides were anything but slack. At its height, the tidal current at Suisun Bay was as fast as 14 miles per hour.

So, with a ‘perfect’ boat in mind I began sending inquiries to Craigslist postings for used boats. Then I found it, the perfect boat – a 12′ inflatable Fish Hunter with a Minn Kota trolling motor. At 48 lbs, the boat could easily be lifted up the keel of the ship, deflated, and stowed. For $220, it was a steal. Split between the three of us, we were only on the line for $80 each.

Two months later, we met at the entrance to the slough with our new boat standing ready in the bed of my truck. We pumped it up, threw the trolling motor inside, and walked with hundreds of pounds of gear down a muddy lot, across a pair of railroad tracks, and into the entrance of the slough.

Scott Haefner, the third member of our expedition, made a final inventory of our provisions. Stephen threw the rope into the boat and pushed it off from the shore. We were on our trepidatious journey out to Row F of the fleet.

Row F

THE Suisun Bay Naval Reserve Fleet is only one of many groupings of ships held in reserve by the government. In the 1940s there were as many as 2,277 ships, most of which have been deactivated, sunk as reefs, sold to foreign allies, or returned to service. Of the original 2,277 ships, a little over 200 ships remain today; out of those 200 ships only about 50 are in the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun.

The three of us spent months pouring over aerial photographs, maps, and satellite images of the fleet. By the time we were chugging the length of our beloved slough, we were intimately aware of each ship in each row, their significance, and their individual perils. Our plans were kept secret to all except our loved ones. 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.

In our myopic world of 7 rows and 50 ships, easy pickin’ was Row F.  It’s a direct, unencumbered route from the much-hailed slough. A complete journey to Row F is quick, efficient, silent, and surreptitious – making it well within the range of eluding the 30-minute security rounds.

Stephen pushed off, turned the throttle on our trolling motor, and we were moving through the slough at 7 mph, dodging depth markers and submerged fence posts. Once we were within range of Row F, we made a final confirmation of the security boat’s whereabouts and began the mad 800-foot rush from the entrance of the slough to the keel of the first ship. At one moment, we saw the green light of the security boat approach us. We had no idea whether these boats were equipped with infrared, but we assumed they had seen us. We floated immobile for 10 minutes trying to ascertain if they were still moving towards us. Finally, we decided just to head straight towards the row.

We rowed in concert with the trolling motor to out-power the strength of the outgoing tides. Within 20 minutes we were tied up between the Coast Guard cutters, Planetree and Iris. The deck of the Iris was about 12 feet above us. We could just barely reach the hand-holds by standing on the top of our raft. Scott boarded the ship first, while I nervously handed up our gear. Stephen maintained the boat’s position and watched for roving security patrols. Within minutes, all of the gear was on-board. We disconnected the motor and its battery, and handed it up, took hold of the rope attached to the bow and stern of our raft, and pulled its 48-lb hulk up the side of the Iris. Unable to make any noises in celebration we managed to shake hands and exclaim in whispers that we’d actually done it.

Initial Exaltation

Immediately, we broke open our cameras. Though initially, we’d agreed to stay together, it quickly became apparent that we’d want to go our own ways and reconverge at pre-determined times.  Row F, in particular, had some of the largest ships in the fleet.  The SS Esso Gettysburg – at 700 feet from bow to stern – was among the largest we explored (and would probably ever have a chance to explore). I split off from the group briefly to walk from ship to ship and test doors for entrances. At first, the sheer size of the fleet, and the potential for exterior shots in the moonlight was promising; however, I’d always been interested in walking around the insides, searching for hidden artifacts and clues to the lives men lived on these floating behemoths. And so, within a few minutes, I was pushing the others on an agreed-upon meet-up time. The three of us equivocated over tidal movements, sunrise, and a buffer over unexpected delays on the return trip. We knew that we had to be back at the slough by 5:30 AM in order to beat the sunrise. We decided on 4 AM to meet up for the departure. We had six hours of unencumbered, solitary exploration time. I knew I had to make the most of it, so I started with the SS Gettysburg.

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Even the distant sounds of foghorns and fishing fleets were dampened by the fog. Finally alone, in the midnight mists of Suisun Bay, I felt completely at ease – as if all of the adrenaline and sweat burned in the braggadocio of the previous two hours was suddenly dissipated in the fog that surrounded me. Only the deafening screech of the gigantic steel ship keels rubbing against each other in the occasional wake of passing security boats kept me somewhat on my toes. When that didn’t occur, I appreciated the little moments of reflection, as when a red-tailed hawk, who made its home high in the 100-foot-tall crows’ nest of the USS Taluga (AO-62), squawked to protect its new-found, post-apocalyptic domain.

Moments of peace and reflection punctuated moments of fear – but all of it was an escape of a sort that I’d never managed to experience before. So, when I found the one open door on the SS Gettysburg, my lonely adventure somehow became heightened to exaltation. I’d found something that few people had seen in four decades. I was literally walking inside of a 700-foot-long, 38,000-ton time capsule. What treasures awaited me? It was all my own to discover.

Stephen and Scott were up top, photographing exteriors of ships. I knew, at least for a while, that I’d want this moment to myself – so I closed the steel doors and walked inside. I took my first breath inside of a Mothball Fleet ship. Oddly, I treated it as if I was sipping a fine glass of well-aged Chianti or Bordeaux. It was a fine sip, tinged with a mixture of benzyne, asbestos, black mould, and soggy newspaper. Why I still miss that smell to this day is beyond me.

The inside of the Gettysburg was dark – darker than any environment I’d been in other than a Titan silo. Most people would expect the ghosts of dead sailors to speak from the deepest recesses. I looked at it from a completely different perspective; I had traveled back in time.  When my flashlight flicked on, I expected to see the ship just as it was when it was abandoned in the 1970s, each cabin filled with sleeping engineers and oil-men who manned the forest of valves and ballast tanks that comprised this gigantic super-tanker. I was living their daily lives with them. Each door I opened was a glimpse into the life of another man; each cabin held the quirks that make exploration one of the most rewarding activities one could engage in.

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Traveling in the Ship’s Time Machine

Facing the bow towards the bridge tower of the ship was a lounge with large portholes that donned colorful curtains of peacock proportions. At the time, this was a great place to work – in the world of ships. Most cabins were provisioned with television, their own head, and a large bed and desk. The hallways were larger than most hallways in most ships we came to explore. The Esso Gettysburg had corridors that were as wide as 10 feet across in places – lined with original posters from the 1970s depicting the proper way to conduct one’s job – especially when it came to battling a dangerous oil fire using foam-shooting monitors.

Once I had completely explored the main deck, I knew that Scott and Stephen wouldn’t want to miss out on it, so I searched them out and we returned to go from room to room. Eventually we found ourselves deep in the engine room, dodging spare valves, lathes, and pieces of conduit in the machine shop.  We captured a few shots of the parts and moved towards the central engine room.

Gettysburg was a steam-powered, 26,000 horsepower monster-of-a-tanker. The engine room was testament to its power. The three of us stood 50 feet above the massive boiler and peeked down at the empty space that surrounded us. We had no idea how big it was until we turned our high-powered flashlights on. It was, by far, out of the dozens of ships we eventually explored, the biggest engine room we’d see. Our voices echoed into the dark corners of the room, and each step on the steel catwalks and staircases that kitty-cornered their way down reverberated far off into the distance.

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When we emerged from the Exxon Gettysburg (née Esso Gettysburg) it was 3 AM. Our time to leave was fast approaching. We sadly pulled our deflated, rubber skiff out of its hiding place, hand-pumped her up, and mounted the transom to the stern.  We lowered her to the water, quietly heaved our gear down using ropes, and returned to safety without a hitch. Arriving at our vehicles just after sunrise, each of us knew we’d need to return; by the next full moon we’d be back.

Row E

IT was on our exit from our second trip to Row F that we’d decided it prudent to test the possibility of Row E.  As the closest row to the Benicia Bridge, it’s probably the most noticed row, though certainly not its largest. The most interesting aspect of Row E is its unique historic ships, the USS Glacier (AGB-4) and USS Sperry (AS-12). Upon discovering a cutaway diagram of the Glacier, complete with labels for each of its rooms and their functions, I knew we had to tackle Row E. Normally we would have taken a straight shot trip back from Row F to our beloved slough. This time, we took a chance and let the tides carry us downstream to Row E from Row F – a full 200 yards to the North. We hadn’t seen the security boats in well over an hour, which made us uneasy not knowing if they’d begin their rounds any minute.

USS Glacier, from All Hands Magazine, December 1956

When we arrived at Row E, we’d discovered that entry was easy. A large wooden box – one of many used between the ships to separate their hulls – served as a perfect ladder to ascend the keel to the deck of the SS Wynam (T-AGS-34), an oceanographic survey vessel.  Upon boarding the ship we returned home, knowing that it would be ripe for exploration on a return trip (the sun was already rising and we didn’t have the time or provisions to last another 48 hours out on the fleet, even if it was a new, unexplored row).

Like clockwork, a month later, full moon high once again, we boarded Row E and spent 48 hours exploring its vaunted ships. Then, as was the case with Row F, we chose the Captain’s stateroom of a Thomaston-class landing ship as our accommodation for the weekend. Living on the ships was much easier and more comfortable than one would expect. Though the ships are cold, dark, cramped, and often stuffy inside, if one chooses the right spot in the ship (the captain’s stateroom in most cases), then plenty of room, fresh air, and light is available – especially if the portholes are preserved well enough so they still open (as they did on Row E).

Click on this thumnail to view the full schematic of a Thomaston-class LSD

 

Staterooms

Most staterooms still had complete furniture sets contained within them. We found that the pads of couches made excellent bedding below our sleeping bags. Considering the anxiety and stress we faced getting to the row; the extreme, cold, wet weather; the constant heaving and lifting of heavy cargo while boarding the ships; and the consistent, unfettered rowing we needed to do in order to reach the ships when tidal currents were against our favor – considering all of these things, a moldy, smelly, cushion (upon which one never knows exactly what transpired) looked like a nice, fluffy pillow of love and affection. Though tempting, we most often didn’t choose to sleep when it was dark outside; rather, we’d scurry from ship to ship, photographing features in the moon all night long. When dawn came, we’d sprint to our pre-chosen stateroom and sleep for a few hours before ambling within the interiors of the ship we chose to sleep in – cameras, and tripods, and flash units in hand – until sundown.

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Our system worked well. In fact, it saved our asses more than once. We assumed, but didn’t count on the fact that MARAD employees had the weekends off. We knew that we should expect them to board any one of the rows at any given time during day. At night, on the other hand, we had prime shooting and scoping time. It was a time we felt free enough to walk from ship to ship and within the ships without arousing suspicion (provided that we didn’t use our flashlights when security boats were in our line of sight).

Close Calls

On our final day on Row E, at about noon, we made the almost-disastrous decision to walk from ship to ship during the day. It was something we’d rarely done before; given that we’d never seen MARAD employees on our row up to that point, we safely assumed it wouldn’t happen. We were wrong. When I saw the MARAD ferry approaching our row, I frantically searched for the others and told them they were on their way. The three of us tried to decide which ship we wanted to go inside and ran towards its entry point. MARAD employees were boarding our row, and we had no idea why. Within 30 seconds of the first orange life jacket appearing in front of us, we found ourselves inside of the USS Glacier. We narrowly avoided being seen.

The Glacier has a large central crow’s nest. This particular tower is unlike most crows’ nests because of the Glacier’s unique service as an Antarctic Icebreaker – there is an interior access hatch and ladder that extends the 70-foot length of the tower. About 2/3rds of the way up the tower is a pilothouse that serves as an auxiliary pilothouse in case the captain needs to control the boat from a higher vantage point. This 70-foot-high pilothouse was perfect for watching the movements of MARAD employees. I saw them board the ships and walk across the catwalks from ship to ship.

We never determined when – or if – they left. Finally, when the sun went down, we exited the Glacier and sighed in relief. We’d spent all day inside of the Glacier, largely waiting and listening to see if MARAD began boarding the inside of the Glacier (where we were). At times, we’d walk around and photograph the inside, but not without looking behind our backs in trepidation.

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Our trip out to Row E carried much more risk than our trip to Row F, which we fully expected. We’d find out later that our trips would get progressively more risky, and it would ultimately culminate in our decision to cease going. Luckily, we had enough thirst for adventure to try another row. We knew that Row G carried two jewels of the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, the top secret stealth ship, Sea Shadow, and the World War II battleship, USS Iowa. I heard that the USS Iowa was one the only battleship fitted with a bathtub (apparently for President Roosevelt), and I knew that I had to see it. Scott Haefner was up for a challenge. Stephen was burned out – temporarily. We invited another trusted friend, Sean, along for our third trip to Row G of the Suisun Bay Fleet.

Row G

WHEN one hears the words, “stealth ship” it’s easy to get excited. Imagine our excitement when I saw the first one known to exist, abandoned, decaying, rusting away in front of my own eyes. Though this ship was small, at 164 feet from bow to stern, I couldn’t believe that we had infiltrated the row that held the IX-529 Sea Shadow. Perhaps more interesting than the Sea Shadow itself was the drydock it was ensconced within: HMB-1, the Hughes Mining Barge, built by the famed Howard Hughes company for the CIA in the early 1970s. HMB-1 was one part of a two-part structure used to lift the sunken nuclear Russian submarine, K-129, from the ocean Northwest of Hawaii. K-129 was 16,000 feet underwater, so Hughes built the Glomar Explorer, ostensibly as a Manganese mining ship. The real purpose of the Hughes Mining Barge was to submerge and serve as a purpose-built submerged (and hidden) drydock for any remains recovered from the submarine wreck site (including cryptographic code books, secret intelligence from the Soviet Navy, and nuclear munitions); the Glomar Explorer on the other hand, served as the cover story (manganese nodule mining) and as the powerhouse for lifting the gigantic, 2700-ton submarine from the depths of the ocean.

In the end, Clementine, the gigantic claw that was used to lift the submarine failed; the submarine split in half. Most of the important intelligence was lost in the process, and “Project Jennie,” as it was erroneously known by the press, was a failure. By 1983, HMB-1 was mothballed, but it oddly disappeared from Todd Shipyards, where it was being stored. Inquiries from the press reached a dead end – the only thing the Navy could say was that it wasn’t being used to lift a submarine from the water. The real story was that HMB-1 housed the top secret stealth ship, Sea Shadow IX-529. It was brought to Lockheed Martin facilities in Redwood City, California, where it remained until 1993, when the Sea Shadow project was finally revealed to the public.

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Scott, Sean, and I didn’t want to risk our flashlights being seen by the nearby guard tower at MARAD headquarters less than 200 yards away. We forced ourselves to leave and head towards the USS Iowa. The Iowa is on the opposite end of the Row G from the Sea Shadow, so the walk out took about 20 minutes in the dark. We knew that if anything was monitored in the way of alarms or motion sensors, the USS Iowa would. In fact, it was only a few years prior that the title to the ship was formally transferred from the Navy to MARAD; in the meantime, it had become a highly coveted museum site which the Bay Area and Los Angeles have been competing to obtain for years.

Ship Security

We also knew that Scott found an important, albeit discouraging, clue that indicated to us some ships were alarmed. On our earlier trip to Row F he discovered a microwave sensor. Microwave motion alarms are the least friendly to explorers because such systems can tell the size and distance of an intruder, drastically reducing the error in telling the difference between, say, a hawk and a human. They can also curtain a very large area (e.g. a whole row of ships) with a blanket of protection.

The moment we walked on the Iowa, I pointed to a large, strange looking device mounted high above the bridge of the battleship. Scott noticed it too, and we both believed it to be a sensor. There was only one way to find out. We nonchalantly walked out on the Iowa, towards the three 16-inch guns closest to the bow. We set up our tripods and photographed these gigantic guns (the Iowa wasn’t known as the “Big Stick” for any small matter – its nine 16”, 50 caliber guns could hurl projectiles as heavy as a Volkswagon Beetle 24 miles out to sea).

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Not more than five minutes into boarding the ship, a security boat arrived with its spotlights aimed directly on the Iowa. We thought we were had. The Iowa was flanked by a gangplank with direct access to the ship from the water. If MARAD knew someone was on the ship they could be on within a minute. We had to haul ass off the ship – quickly. Scott, Sean, and I grabbed our tripods and ran back towards the Sea Shadow side of the Row G, all while keeping our backs crouched to avoid being seen by the spotlights. It was the second time we narrowly avoided being caught – this time was too close for comfort.

We spent the remainder of the night exploring the USS Nereus (AS-17), a World War II-era submarine tender that contained its own small treats, including a brig for imprisoning unruly or off-the-rocker sailors. Whether it was because we were unruly, or off-the-rocker, we made light of the moment to do a photo shoot of ourselves. Obviously, we were trying to get the prospect of being caught off our minds by taking self-portraits behind bars in the Nereus. By morning, we were inside of our sleeping quarters in the officer’s lounge of the USS Kawishiwi (T-AO-146). After a few hours of rest, we returned to the Sea Shadow to photograph her in all her glory during the day.

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Our trip out to Row G was both terrifying and exciting. We were getting more reluctant to test our luck and make a return trip. A full four months later, after much hesitation, we decided that we needed to return for one final trip. Row J would be our riskiest endeavor, and considering the proximity our boat would be to security HQ, I surmised that there was a 50/50 chance we’d be waylaid by MARAD security enroute.

Row J

TO this day, I look back at Row J as that eerie, memorable 48 hours that served as the denouement to 18 months of planning and execution. And like many conclusions, drama, excitement, discovery, emotion, were all heightened to the level of hyperrealism. Stephen was ready to get back in the game. Scott as ready as ever. We had to abandon our lovely, little slough for this particular trip. The length from the slough to Row J was much too far to be feasible considering the battery life of our trolling motor (over 1.5 miles). Most importantly, traveling our traditional route meant passing directly under the in-out route of security guards: a long cement skyway going across mudflats and shallow water to security HQ.  We would certainly be seen along the way, because the skyway is buffeted on each end by a long series of mercury vapor streetlamps that illuminate everything within 200 feet.

Route #2 was a thinner, shallower slough that exited on the upstream side of the skyway. We didn’t even know if it was possible to take our boat through it. In many ways, it was riskier than our original slough. This one required us heaving the boat over a salinity gate, dropping it back into the slough, continuing through the channel, and passing within 150 feet of the dock where the security boats embarked and disembarked with reinforcements – all well within the range of illumination. If anyone was at security HQ, the docks, or taking the security boat to make a stop at HQ, they would have easily seen us. We quietly went out, and rolled our 50/50 dice. Lady Luck was with us. We made it to Row J, disembarking on a floating barge that carried supplies and equipment for MARAD, which was tied up adjacent to the SS President Tyler.

While climbing the 15-foot distance between the deck of the President Tyler and the containerized barge a security boat came by – spotlights ablaze. Stephen and I dived on our bellies, hoping we wouldn’t be seen in the beams. Scott laid low at the bottom of the container, unable to find a sufficient hiding place if the boat happened to shine between the rows as it often does. Luckily our raft was deflated – otherwise they would have easily descried its silhouette and we would have been had. Once the boat was out of visual range, we continued on to Row J.

The silence between us was palpable. I think each of us knew this was going to be our last trip. Though we didn’t really want this to be the case, we also knew that our good fortune would be up if we continued our bombast. The urgency of the situation also meant that our creativity was heightened. Much like we did on our first journey out to the fleet, nearly a year earlier, we decided to split up as soon as we found sleeping quarters.

Cargo Ships and Passenger Lines

The great highlight of Row J is a large collection of cargo ships that doubled as passenger lines. The difference between a utilitarian ship and one intended to serve as a cruise line is like night and day. Passenger cruises, as the three of us knew well from our past illicit journeys to the SS Independence in San Francisco, have the features that photographers love: original artwork, unique design features, quirky room accoutrements, and dramatic verandas or lounges that offer panoramic views of the outside world. Row J didn’t disappoint in that respect. The sad fact of Row J, though, was that we had about half the time that we had on Row F with twice as many ships to photograph. It was unfortunate that we missed out on fully documenting some important ships, including the SS American Racer, SS American Reliance, SS Aid, SS Agent, SS Ambassador.

I focused my efforts on the SS President Lincoln. The importance of the Lincoln, which is now on its way to the scrap yard, is that it was a pioneer in the development of containerized cargo shipping. In the early 1960s, when the Lincoln was built, the problem of rapid globalization was barely being addressed. Shipping companies responded with containerized cargo, a revolutionary move from the traditional method of palletized cargo. American President Lines, a quasi-government, San Francisco-based shipping company built the President Lincoln to accommodate containers, but it also wanted to supplement its income by including a small, exclusive complement of 12 passengers per cruise. These ships were elegantly beautiful, with fixtures and murals inside that provided scenic surroundings for the wealthy passengers that once walked their decks.

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Like rapacious scavengers, we sweeped the ships in search of photographs. Our eyes bloodshot, our sense of time completely distorted, we frantically went from deck to deck testing doors for the rare opportunity of entrance inside. I finally found a way inside of the President Lincoln and spent a few hours exploring it. I managed to return during the day when its interior spaces were best photographed and assessed.

Searchlights and Security

Our final night out on the mothball fleet was silent once again. Unlike our early journeys to Row F a year earlier, fog was completely absent. Sound traveled farther, as did the beacons of our flashlights when we happened to use them. We were much wearier of unusual sounds or movements on the water. The wind had ceased; the water far across the horizon – as far as eyes could see – was as glassy and calm as the sands of a vast desert. A single barn owl hooted from one of the tall stacks on the ships.

The silence, though peaceful on our first trip out, was unnerving on our last. I was continually waiting for it to be punctuated by a loud, intrusive wake accompanied by spotlights. The more we went out, the more often the spotlights seemed to appear – tenacious tendrils of light, an aspect least comforting among our journeys. The spotlights haunted our minds more than the security boats themselves, certainly more haunting for me than the thought of dead sailors or ghostly ship cabins while I waited alone in the penumbral darkness, waiting to re-emerge at night for photography.

Our egress from our final row was fraught with a comedy of errors that nearly had us caught. Exhausted and depleted of any remaining adrenaline, we lost our oars in a crack between the two container barges. The oars floated away on the glassy water, out of our reach. We lost the most efficient way back (it would have been impossible to use only the power of our trolling motor to get through portions of the mudflats); it was then that the security patrol found its way towards Row J. It scanned the water and shined its terrifying spotlights as if it knew we were there. We crouched tightly against the barges hoping we wouldn’t be seen. A short reprieve came; the security boat left towards HQ. We threw our fully inflated boat into the water and miraculously found our oars wedged where the water met the keel of the President Tyler.

It was at that moment – the moment we thought we were finally home free, when we were on brink of hooting and hollering – that we saw the fast approaching security boat behind us.  All I could think of was the impending spotlight… That much-maligned specter that fed the fear on my final trip out to the fleet. I hated the spotlight, but I knew it was coming. Scott and I were rowing harder than we’d ever rowed in our lives, while Stephen had the motor full throttle. We were moving at about 10 knots when the spotlights reached our ship.  The boat was about 200 feet behind our stern, and the spotlights were fixed directly on us. We were fully illuminated by the bright, white light. It was over. I threw my oar to the side of the boat in exasperation, trying to think of what we would say to the two security officers on the boat.

At that moment, something miraculous happened. The boat turned back towards Row J. Did they miss us? For whatever reason, we recommenced our epic rowing. We continued at full speed, reached beloved slough #2, threw our boat over the salinity gate, rowed home on a dead battery, and threw everything into our truck, away from Fleet HQ and on to safe anonymity among the city ahead of us.

Was it really over? Surely it had to be. The sun rose, bird-chirping heralded the dawn; strangely enough, it felt like everything was new that morning. We returned un-apprehended, 18 months after those first moments, completely exhausted but happy to be in our warm, dry homes. What we had those 18 months can never be repeated. Not again. Never. But in the beauty of those moments, among those lost relics of history, I think each of us learned something about perseverance and the overarching urgency of recording these strange, rotting, archaic things.

They were such beautiful, awesome, jaws-wide-open creations of humankind. Such intricacy and beauty; so much to save and show, share and celebrate. I love these places. I love them to the point of risking my life, limb, and reputation for them. I love the friendships that are formed in accessing them; and I’ll always love the supreme purpose behind presenting them as best we could, ourselves being imperfect yet adventurous artists.

These ships I’ve shown here are mostly dead now, but hopefully I’ve helped their story live on. It’s so sad to see their scarred, scrapped, disassembled hulls. From the sky they’re little Tonka toys or Lego sets, as if pulled apart by playful five-year-olds, their vast hulks reconverted into razor blades, or iPods, or cheap tchotchkes from third-world countries. One only hopes that a piece of them survives in a well-engineered bridge, or the embellishment of a gleaming, chrome skyscraper, or any human-designed machine that inspires others by showing the art inherent in function and form, form and function in one. All great creations of humanity are only appreciated when they are gone, which is the sad fact of living the life of an illicit explorer. We get to see them at the end of their lives, hoping that others appreciate them for what they were… for what they tell us.

Further Research

48 comments on “Adventures in the Abandoned Ships of Suisun Bay

  1. Eric Kullmann on said:

    I imagine you will get this reply often.
    My friends and I have been dreaming of visiting those ships for years. Thank you so much for doing something we didnt have the gumption to do ourselves and bring us the stories and pictures so we could live the adventure through you.
    I suggest also visiting the “war eagle” mine in nevada. It is part of a large hardrock mine chain full of fun.

    ps. Take me with you!!!!!!

  2. J.T. Colfax on said:

    I didn’t really have time to read this saga, but once I got started I couldn’t stop. Truly amazing.

  3. Andy Frazer on said:

    A great write-up. I really enjoyed your slide show last weekend. And I’m glad you guys were crazy enough to return to the fleet multiple times.

    -Andy

  4. Thomas on said:

    Jonathan –

    Quite exceptional. Your writing, your photography and your sheer daring are an inspiration.

    Thank you.

    Thomas

  5. andrew_bisset on said:

    there’s so much win in this post it brings a tear to my eye…once again, first class work!

  6. Inthewater on said:

    Reading this was more exciting and visceral than some of the better fiction I’ve read lately.

    Amazing story, and thnks for sharing the pictures. The images here are just haunting.

  7. Keelhauler on said:

    Great shots, but publishing them and promoting them the way you did is an act of blatant idiocy.
    Now that MARAD has caught wind about what you were up to, access to the fleet has been severely curtailed for every museum ship in this country that relies on the Suisun for parts and materials to maintain and refurbish their vessels. Inconsiderate does not even come close to describing your behavior. The inconvenience and lost opportunities you have caused to legitimate visitors and historic navel monuments will be felt for years to come.

  8. First, let me clearly say that we had no intention of doing this to the organizations that had legitimate access, and frankly had no expectation that it would affect history-minded museum ships. I sincerely regret that consequence. That being said: Would you agree that our documentation is a public service? Would you also agree that, as taxpayers, we are entitled to appreciate and marvel at the engineering before it’s wantonly melted down for scrap?

    The fact of the matter is that MARAD is an incredible group of people. I hold no qualms with them, but they are limited by their own bureaucracy. There was NO WAY we would have had the photos we have now have if we had preened for the much-sought-after spots. By the time we made it on the fleet for two hours of guided touring (and about 15 inadequate daytime shots) half of the historic fleet would have been gone.

    Additionally, you should also agree that most of the historic vessels are long gone. Gettysburg, Lincoln, all of the Liberty/Victory ships, all of the World War II ships (other than a token few). There is very little left for museum ships to utilize. I don’t think – given a few weeks – you will see a significant effect on your ability to procure items.

    Again, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry to those of you who have been affected by this, but please, please, please, read my story to understand why I do this. There is meaning behind it – at least for me. Don’t dismiss it simply because I’m not a member of an “organization.”

  9. burro on said:

    Right or wrong, I can’t say, but I’m every shade of green with envy at the opportunity you all had to move about on these time capsules and record your travels. The photos are fantastic and the reflection on U.S. history thought provoking.

    If the museum ships around the country are being penalized for your adventure, that is no more than petulant selfishness. Where’s the connection?

    Those aren’t just hollow hulls floating out there. There’s real and incredibly interesting history in those ships, and I, for one, am glad to see these photos before the ships do just molder away. Those ships were paid for by the American people. I resent that these rough around the edges, undeclared museums are so off limits.

  10. Aaron on said:

    Stones man, some serious stones!! Really enjoyed reading about this!!

  11. Craig M Wood on said:

    The pictures are great. I thought about doing what you did, but too old. I have seen some of your pictures on flicker. Why don’t you put them in all one place and sell copies/Prints. Thanks

    Craig

  12. Warren on said:

    Great adventure..I stumbled onto this site as I was told Suisun Bay was the last resting place for a ship I was stationed on during the 60′s. The USS Union AKA-106. Some of us old sailors feel strongly about these old rust buckets as they were once like a living, breathing thing. We lived aboard them, worked them, landed Marines in Viet Nam from their boats, they were our home and the source of great memories. Scraped long ago it’s sad, but necessary I’m sure. I would have liked to be on your boarding party. I understand how you can be drawn into such an adventure. Some day they will all be gone. Thanks for the ride.

  13. Working on behalf of a museum ship, the former USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD850) (and being a former crewmember) I had the privilege of visiting the ships at Suisun Bay several times. The purpose of our visits was to remove parts from the WWII ships that would facilitate the restoration of the museum ships. As you report, the feeling of knowing that sailors took those ships around the world and having the opportunity to be back among them and seeing and smelling those ships was an incredible experience.
    Your visits were also incredibly dangerous from the standpoint of open voids, missing deck plates,missing ladders (stairs)or partial ladders and the absolute absence of any light beyond your flashlights.
    As mentioned, because most of the WWII ships are gone, the museum ships have no reason to visit Suisun Bay any longer.

  14. Eric on said:

    Well done! I really enjoyed both the writing and the photographs.

  15. Cool story bro!

  16. Jeremy on said:

    Awesome story make more, enough with the shaming language from people who think he should of gotten permission, as he said if he was to do that he wouldn’t of been able to document as thoroughly as he did. Also about the microwave on the IOWA were you referring to the radar dish up on the mast, that is actually part of the ships fire control director systems.

    Great story, as epic a tale as the trip to vandenburg, keep it up :)

  17. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Jeremy: I’m not referring to a radar dish. I’m familiar with microwave sensors, and this certainly had the characteristics of one. MW sensors are small and less conspicuous than a dish. It was hard to know for sure in the dark, but it definitely wasn’t a radar dish.

    Thanks for the kind words.

  18. Jeremy on said:

    I just thought you might of mistaken that like some people would inevitably. Obviously there had to be an alarm somewhere, I guess the sign on the side saying keep off 500 meters actually had some teeth :p. Too bad you couldn’t further explore the IOWA. I was delighted when I read you were going to G row :) Once again nice post, and thanks for not being afraid to share with us armchair explorers :P

  19. Gentlemen:

    Great story with alot of heart, my old ship the USS Cimarron AO 177 has the pleasure of sharing mooring lines with the USS Iowa at eh Mothball fleet, it was nice to see atleast one picture of her, it is a real shame that there is not ONE museum ship if an oiler, the Navy should recosider this fact, if it was not for the Oilers the fleet would never be able to do what it does, floating gas stations are the heart of the fleet, it keeps them haze grey and underway, but again gret story thanks for the memories and the time.

  20. Hello

    My father was stationed on the USS Sperry during WWII, he was an electrician and worked on submarines that had combat damage. While he passed away while I was fairly young, he spoke well of “his” ship and the other crew members. Thank you for the visual remembrance of this great ship and its glorious career. Most hear of Aircraft Carriers, Destroyers, Cruisers and Battleships yet these tenders, oilers and repair ships were the backbone of the fleet and without them there would be no Fleet.

    “Hail the warriors, be they gloried, not, or never heard from. Hail to all”

    Thank you all for your service.

    Son of a Unheralded Man

  21. Seahag on said:

    Amazing story and extremely well written. My brother, who volunteers on the Hornet, sent me the link. Thoroughly enjoyed reading of your adventures, but sad about the resulting limitations placed on those who relied on the mothballed fleets for parts & supplies. Bureaucracy strikes again.

  22. The best. Beautiful. Heroic. Thanks so much for this. Wish I could have been there… but I prob would have had to sneak a cig and given us all up. :)

  23. Jon thanks so much for posting the photos and writing about your adventures. Sorry I meant to post sooner but getting ready and now being on deployment has been tasking to say the least. Oddly I heard about this site from your mother she cleaned my teeth at dental at Port Hueneme back in July. You have really spurred me on in my own research of naval history its a passion of mine. I have read this and seen a lot of the other pictures Scott Haefner and your self have done.

  24. Thanks for the fantastic story and photographs!!
    Most fail to realize the current and past sacrifices made by americans for the united states of america.
    These vessels belong to the people. The government which we elect have only the power that we the people grant.
    As far as the danger of missing deck panels rusted stairs etc.
    These men were aware of potentially dangerous situations and conditions. Just as the men who built and the men who served aboard these treasures of time and human ingenuity were aware of the potential uncertainties and dangers.

    Thanks again on behalf of all Americans for the update on the status of OUR PROPERTY.

  25. We should take better care of our history:(

  26. Jeremy on said:

    good news everyone, USS Iowa is going to L.A to be a museum, now you don’t have to skulk around in Suisan bay :)

  27. Good job guys, scary though… nothing intrigues me more than the inside of an old ship or factory.
    Visited the USS Alabama on vacation and I can relate to the smell, an almost alluring faint stench of grease steel and lord know what else.

    THanks for the Website

  28. Jeremy on said:

    I’ve been on the USS North Carolina, I think I know which smell you are describing Ted, its like oiled machinery and metal’s, but I like it :D.

  29. Kevin H on said:

    Wow, what an amazing story and series of adventures. I’m glad you guys did this and captured what would have been lost forever. And the night shots with the water motion really give such a strong sense of everything you described. It’s really a shame that such money in nautical design and engineering turns into nothing but scrap value in the end. Nice work and keep on keepin’ on.

  30. This is probably old news but, i was lurking the Pacific Battleship Facebook group and recognized your picture from the deck of the IOWA. Apparently some people have a bone to pick with you…

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1772000901521&set=o.300103172268&type=3&theater

    —-

    silly Greg and friends he didn’t do anything wrong, blame MARAD for not letting veterans onboard. To say that he “stole something” is ridiculous, he left nothing but footprints and took nothing but pictures. He could actually say you “stole” something because you or someone else posted up one of his pictures in that facebook group without asking him. fail.

    Furthermore if you were reading he said they were barely on the deck for 5 minutes before they tripped a sensor, so he did not disturb turret #2 like you claim. Infact its a shame he didn’t get to explore further, and even furthermore that ship was paid for by taxpayers, there is nothing really secret about it anymore except what can only be determined in the blueprints. There was nothing “illegal” about what he did.

    Shame on you and the other 4 people who liked that post. Bad *smack*.

    Special Thanks again to Mr Haeber and co explorers. :D

  31. Juliyana on said:

    Wowww, amazing trips, amazing adventures.
    But I saw the darkness side on the ships.

  32. Pie Luis on said:

    Really amazing story. I am interested in Ship Security. Can you explain me more clearly about that ship security ? Thank you.

  33. So amazing! I worked as a nautical engineer for awhile, and was fortunate enough to get a job o the mothball fleet, we were redoing the hulls so they can carry the ships through the panama. It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done! Playing around in the oldnsick bays, hopping from ship to ship, seeing some staterooms as though they had never been touched, all of it was too much fun! I envy you for staying the night onboard, it wouldnof been the most eerie yet memorable slumber party to date.

  34. James Pobog on said:

    Great blog, great story. My old Navy ship (USS Mispillion, AO 105) was just removed from Row G in January 2012 to be scrapped. Mispillion was the next ship from the Sea Shadow barge. She went to Mare Island for prep and MARAD actually was very accommodating and let me and 3 other former crew on board to take pix and souvenirs 2 different days. If you would like to see them, there are many photos from those trips on our Facebook page.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/5736087907/

  35. Chris on said:

    This is the second time I have read this, and I really enjoyed it. And to all those who claim they did nothing wrong think again. They trespassed onto property to gain the shots they did, I could be wrong but i do believe the fleet is still federal property which can result in heavy fines. It’s an awesome write up but something that should have been kept under wraps.

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  37. John C. Noernberg Sr. on said:

    I love your photos and stories. I was stationed on the USS Jason AR-8 Repair Tender and was wondering what ever happened to her since the time I spent on her was truly an adventure and dream. Glad to see that some still think of us Vets and our ships we used to call home. Sad that not many care of the history of these great war ships and what it meant to serve aboard them so many years ago which seems like just yesterday. If anyone knows what happened to the Jason; please contact me and let me know. j.c.noernberg@sbcglobal.net. THanks and I was honored to serve you all.

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  39. James Pobog on said:

    I found your website shortly before I made two 24-hour banzai runs to Mare Island from Orange county, January of 2012. I went there to see my old ship, USS Mispillion, in drydock, being prepped for her last voyage to the breakers at Brownsville. I had the extreme privilege to be one of the four last former crew to walk her decks. I had been stationed on her late fall 1971 until fall 1973.

    Thanks for your courage to undertake the project. You have preserved the memory of these ships right at the end of their lives. Well done.

  40. jeremy on said:

    Uh no “Chris” you think again, they didn’t do anything wrong, Period. Ok? Yes thats what I said. End of story. Same goes for the other complainers.

  41. earl on said:

    Unfortuantely chris, jeremy is right your statement is just shaming language, as nothing was stolen or vandalized, so cut the crap please. thank you OP for sharing this story and not concealing it, keep up the good work and post more locations. :)

  42. robfromtn on said:

    Super sweet trip….Thanks a million for the photo’s very well written story…..Please keep up the posts on future missions… Thank you for the visual remembrance of these great ship’s….Rob

  43. Per Landeck on said:

    Thank you for the insight to those great ships. I served on the USS Nereus (AS-17) and the USS Florikan (ASR-9). In the latest Google shots the Nereus appears to be gone and the Florikan was scrapped in Brownsville in late 2010. We sailors think of our ships as living things and it is sad to see them go. Do you have a gallery of pictures from the Nereus? Would it be accessible? Take care.

  44. Robert P. Sirois on said:

    All I would like to say is THANK YOU ALL for the MOST ENLIGHTENING story I have read in many years. You GENTLEMEN are the BEST and deserve a special donation for what expenses you encured during your trips and I would like to be one of the first to help with it. As a former serviceman, I most definitely respect all of YOU for what YOU all did. THANK YOU again !

  45. Jonathan H on said:

    Robert, James, John, and all other servicemen who responded. Your comments humble me, and I am thankful for your kind words, as well as your service to this country. My experience on the ship was always punctuated by thoughts on who served on them and what their lives were like, so I am ecstatic to hear your stories.

  46. Jim Fagg on said:

    Man,what an adventure. In reading your story, I shared in your excitement, fear, and joy. I served on the Nereus AS-17 in the mid 60′s and many memories came back as you wrote of your experience. Thanks for the adventure.

  47. Current status of the ships as of November 11th 2013. My aerial shots of the entire remaining 20 vessels: https://alex.exposure.so/suisun-bay

  48. Marci Hooper on said:

    Jon, I can’t even figure how I found this, but it is amazing. I don/t really applaud your putting yourself in danger, or breaking the law, but I do understand the draw of the fleet. I have been there 3 times, and it is a bit magical, if lacking in amenities. As long as there is anything of value, (and if there are ships, there is stuff of value to other ships)it is a shame that access is curtailed. I haven’t been there since the late 80′s & early 90′s, and now wish I had taken lots more photos. -Marci

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