They are a floating museum, revered by some, reviled by others. But no trip to the Bay Area is complete without viewing the huddled battalion of old military ships that haunts its northern reaches, where they've shed over 21 tons of heavy metals and other toxics into the shallow waters. Fishermen cast their lines into Suisun Bay as if the ghost fleet isn’t even there.
Eventually, it won’t be. By 2017, most of the decrepit vessels in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet will have landed in the ship boneyard. For now, the imposing relics known as the “ghost” or “mothball” fleet make for an interesting day trip about 39 miles from San Francisco. The industrial, graffiti-brightened ramparts near the water only add to the scenery.
The fleet was created after World War II and is part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet – ships stored across the country for emergency purposes. In the 1950s and 60s, there were over 500 ships from World War II and the Korean War in the San Francisco Bay estuary. For years, Howard Hughes’s spy ship the Glomar Explorer was stored there, before it was converted to an oil-drilling ship. Most have since been scrapped.
Still, eighty or so ships remained, rotting away. The mothballed vessels prompted lawsuits and in 2010, a federal judge ruled in favor of environmentalists who say the fleet is polluting the bay, shedding mercury, lead, hexavalent chromium, PCBs, asbestos and more. Travel tip: don’t bring fishing poles.
Over time, the U.S. Maritime Administration will clean and scrap every last hull. Twenty of those in the worst condition will have gone to a dry dock in San Francisco by 2012 before being recycled. The ships that remain in Suisun Bay are routinely cleaned and monitored, but all will be gone by 2017.
One dive group, seeing opportunity in the problem of disposing of the ships, has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain some of them for sinking – “repurposing” - as artificial reefs along the California coast. The non-profit corporation California Ships to Reefs identified “approximately 32 possible candidates” from the Suisun Bay fleet, according to a newsletter for the group.
One ship that will be reincarnated – though not at the bottom of the sea – is the U.S.S Iowa, a World War II battleship that's about three football fields long, weighs 45,000 tons and is 15 stories tall. The monster-size ship served in battles in the Pacific theater during World War II, entered Tokyo Bay with the occupation forces in 1945, and served as flagship for the surrender ceremony.
Earlier this month the Navy announced that the Iowa - the last surviving battleship without a home – will head to the Port of Los Angeles, where it will begin its afterlife as a permanent museum.
For now, the Iowa is still on view in Suisun Bay, where it will likely remain until late October. Visitors can take a boat tour to see the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet through Bay View Charters, which departs from Martinez on the last weekend of each month. The tour is described as “one of the best ways to see the Iowa, which is not yet open to the public.” Also on the itinerary: “one of the largest reserve fleet sites on the West Coast.” That is, the skeleton crew of about 60 “cruisers, ice breakers, oilers, and merchant ships.” The tours last for an hour and 45 minutes and take viewers “within 500 feet of the battleship,” according to their website.
That, of course, can’t compare with the less-than-legal tours taken by some: http://blog.usni.org/2011/06/08/sneaking-onboard-the-mothball-fleet/.
Still others have somehow gained access: http://www.amyheiden.com/blog/tag/suisun-bay-reserve-fleet.
For the less adventurous, the less well-connected and the DIY tourist: there’s always a spot on the hill, or down by the water’s edge where the fishermen throw their lines.