Adventures in the Abandoned Ships of Suisun Bay

Geotag Icon Show on map May 10th, 2011

By Jonathan H


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.