The Mothball Fleet: California’s Decaying Flotilla of Ghost Ships

Rusting and decaying, having completed their service and outlasted the men who lived and died on them, the Mothball Fleet is a series of forgotten Navy and merchant ships that have been ignored after serving in four wars: the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. The fleet is nothing but ghost ships now, abandoned in Suisun Bay, California and waiting to be towed out for scrap. They will all be gone by 2017.

Photographer Scott Haefner and a group of friends found various ways on board after two years of planning for this exploration. Sneaking past the eyes of guards, and following some close calls, he managed to make it on board the ships. These ships are meant to be reserve ready as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) overseen by the US Maritime Administration (MARAD). Unfortunately the majority have only one last stop waiting for them while they slowly disintegrate – a tow to the scrap yard.

Haefner explains: “Sneaking on-board required months of planning and coordination, and it involved taking significant risks. Of course, things did not always go as planned, but despite several close calls, we were successful in all of our attempts to infiltrate the ships while evading round-the-clock security patrols.”

Three hundred twenty-four of these ships lined Suisun Bay in 1959 but the numbers lessened over time to about 75 in the 21st century. There is a real environmental issue here as well: “More than 20 tons of toxic paint debris has settled into the bay sediments, where they will cause problems long after they are gone,” according to Scott. Lawsuits at the federal and the state level were unsuccessful in making MARAD remove the ships and environmental groups had no more luck until 2008 when Barack Obama took office. Now MARAD are working to clean up and scrap the ships.

Haefner talks about his feelings once he got on board the ships and the enjoyment of relaxing among them: “Once aboard, everything seemed to slow down. The adrenaline rush and anxiety I felt as we approached the ships instantly faded once we climbed aboard safely. I found it easy to relax and enjoy the quiet and stillness of the evening, miles from the hustle and bustle of modern civilization. We heard nearby trains rumbling as they passed, even inside the ships, but that’s it. Otherwise, it was just us and a few birds of prey that call the ships home”.

You can see many more of his spectacular photos of the Mothball Fleet at his gallery. Now recorded for history, the ships can take their final voyage to the scrapyard and the clean up can begin.

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