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.

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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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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

You’re Invited: Mothball Fleet Revealed

Geotag Icon Show on map April 29th, 2011

By Jonathan H

Years ago, I – along with two other friends – laid the groundwork for one of our most daring explorations yet attempted. We knew the waters were fraught with the danger of being caught, but we arranged our plans to mitigate those risks. Though the news has been out for some time, the actual story is yet to be told – at least until May 7th, 2011, when four of us – including one photographer who gained official access, Amy Heiden – will be presenting never-before-seen images of the Suisun Bay Naval Reserve Fleet [RSVP Here].

I’ve written about the fleet here before – heck, I’ve written about it twice for good measure – and I’ll be writing about it much more in the future, given that there is now a treasure trove of images to reveal.  However, the full story will not be posted here today. I’m simply here to announce the event. For months, we’ve contemplated how to make our journeys public, and we wanted it to be done in person among the the link-minded.

Let the images below be your teaser. Come for the show to see them all. For less than the cost of a big-budget Hollywood thriller, you can see real adventure in action. Hear about our close calls, dangerous mishaps, and the details of the exploration that I’m most proud of.

The truth is, many of the ships that you will see in this show are long gone. The only record of their existence, other than in the memories of the men and women who served on these ships, will be the photos that we show on May 7th. Few photos or blueprints exist, and I’m proud to say that we served some small part in recording their history.

Under the cover of darkness, among the broiling waters of the San Francisco Bay, through a myriad of toxic ships – we’ve emerged from our adventures with a better understanding of where and who we now are as a nation. Come hear our stories, see the prints, watch the slideshow. I hope to see you there, so that you can share in our wide-eyed amazement at these intricate, well-engineered relics of mankind.

Saturday May 7, 2011 from 7:00pm – 9:00pm

$8 at the door

Workspace Limited

2150 Folsom St.
San Francisco, California 94110

Press Release


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Japan’s Nuclear Reactor Cutaway

Geotag Icon Show on map March 15th, 2011

By Jonathan H

Click on the image above to see a full-scale [6MB], poster-size scan of a Japanese advanced boiling water nuclear reactor [ABWR]. Though the image above is NOT the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor, it closely resembles the design of that plant. You can also download the PDF here.

A few quick notes (though the major point of this post was to show off this amazing cutaway). Japan is a world leader in utilization of clean, nuclear energy, and produces about 34% of its energy with its 50 nuclear reactors. To hop up on my soapbox for  a brief moment, allow me to say something about the tragic events in Japan, in order for us all to maintain a clear head, in spite of the destruction and pandemonium being played up in the media:

  • The amount of radiation currently leaking into the atmosphere from Fukushima Dai-ichi is about as much as you’d get from eating 1-2 bananas a day for a year [source]. Granted, this could quickly change, but for now it looks relatively benign.
  • Radioactive isotopes that are released do not last millions of years, as is commonly thought. The half life of the two most common isotopes from fallout (caesium and iodine) is 30 years and 8 days, respectively. This means that most radiation from a nuclear disaster will naturally decay quickly. [source and source]
  • Burning coal for power is 100 times more radioactive than the radiation from nuclear waste [source]
  • Litigation and regulation are stalling 351 U.S. energy projects that could create as many as 1.9 million jobs and increase the nation’s gross domestic product by $1.1 trillion. [source]
  • The U.S. and Russia has a stockpile of outdated, dangerous plutonium from Cold War weapons. What would normally be stored as nuclear waste could be re-processed into fuel (MOX) to provide a low-carbon source of energy. Highly-enriched uranium in US and Russian weapons and other military stockpiles is equal to about 12 times the annual world mine production. [source]
Litigation and regulation are stalling 351 U.S. energy projects that could create as many as 1.9 million jobs and increase the nation’s gross domestic product by $1.1 trillion.