January 2, 2019 | Matt
The United States Navy is enormous and powerful. The American fleet is composed of about 430 ships, both in active service and held in reserve. It is equipped to handle virtually any challenge mounted to it, featuring cutting edge technology, dominant numbers and vessels that are simply enormous, like the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. The Navy also has another, odder fleet: the “mothballed” ships from previous wars that it keeps on hand to rejuvenate in case of extreme crisis.
This fleet is found in Suisun Bay, off the coast of San Francisco. In its heyday, it boasted up to 340 ships. These days, though, only a skeleton crew remains, rusting in the ocean air. There are ships there that date all the way back to World War II. The fleet, which is strictly off-limits to civilians, is one of a few such fleets dotted around the country.
The US Maritime Administration has ordered that the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet be scrapped. This still has yet to happen. Its ten residents still sit there, collecting barnacles. Although getting access to the ships is virtually impossible, a photographer named Amy Heiden managed to get clearance. Her photographs of the eerie, derelict ships are quite striking. In this article, we will take a look at the Suisun Bay fleet as well as a number of other abandoned warships that make the ocean an even spookier place.
The Ships Have Reached The Ends Of Their Lives
The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet is part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a ghost fleet of ships whose numbers have dwindled so dramatically in recent years that they’re poised on the brink of extinction. The “mothballed” ships, mostly mercantile ships, are in good enough condition that they can be put into active service between 20 and 120 days in case of national emergencies. The vessels would be used for shipping.
The U.S. Maritime Administration maintains the fleet. “Maintains” is a strong word. The vessels are in various states of disrepair. Like this ship, the USS Nereus, devoid of crew and covered in rust.
The reserve fleet program started in 1946, with the end of World War II. The fleet swelled in numbers until 1950, when it peaked at somewhere around two thousand ships.
Now, the ships at Suisun sit in silence, awaiting their fates. They will all either be auctioned off or totally scrapped. The fleet has attracted a great deal of controversy among environmental advocates. There is cause for concern that the ships may be leeching heavy metals and PCBs into the water. Flaking lead-based paint is an article of especial concern. Heiden’s stark, mournful photos of the ships may be their most enduring legacy.
The Stealth Vessel That Never Was
While most of the vessels at Suisun are quite old, the fleet played host to one very special guest for a while. This is the Lockheed Martin Sea Shadow, a one-off stealth prototype that called the ghost fleet home between 2006 and 2012, when it was dismantled.
The Sea Shadow was meant to be the naval equivalent of Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk, a stealth jet that made lots of history and is still recognizable to many. The Sea Shadow, however, never enjoyed its forebear’s popularity or esteem. You may recognize it from the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies – the villain’s stealth boat was modeled after the Shadow.
The Shadow was launched in 1984. It was a technological achievement, featuring extensive automation, a spartan interior design and a striking, futuristic exterior. It remained a secret project until 1993, when it was revealed to the public. Despite the boat’s sophistication, only the one prototype was ever manufactured.
It was docked at San Diego, until the Navy decided to put it up for auction in 2006. There were no buyers. It was stored in the interior of the Hughes Mining Barge. It was finally dismantled in 2012.
The Shadow’s hull design has been incorporated into many different ships. It was exceptionally stable for having such a high and strange hull.
The Boat Of The Future, Now History
The Sea Shadow featured a SWATH (Small-Waterplane-Area Twin Hull) design that looked like something from a science fiction movie. Its twin hulls each had its own propeller, an aft stabilizer and an inboard hydrofoil.
This odd arrangement allowed the Shadow to remain very stable even in rough seas. It was rated for conditions as rough as “sea state 6,” which means waves up to eighteen feet high.
Because it was so technologically advanced, featuring many state-of-the-art automation systems that other ships did not have, it had a very spare interior. It featured only twelve bunks, a microwave, a table and a fridge. It was the most expensive dorm room in history. Those bunks were rarely used – the Shadow was never actually tooled up to be mission-capable. It was also never commissioned. It remained a showpiece for the duration of its life, at least as far as we know.
It is somewhat sad that such a sophisticated piece of engineering would end up rotting in the belly of a mining barge. Nobody even bought it for scrap. Perhaps because of a Navy stipulation that the buyer was required to destroy the vessel. That’s some expensive scrap metal.
A Silent War Is Still Raging
While these ships have not seen battle in many, many years, there was recently a legal war fought to destroy them. They lost.
Environmental advocacy groups, as well as the State of California, were concerned about the potential ill effects of having the ships permanently stationed in Suisun Bay. They believed that the ships were hemorrhaging heavy metals and anti-fouling agents into the water, which could have serious consequences for wildlife and human health. Congress provided funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the ships and their contamination risks.
The project got underway in 2008. Its results led to a mandate that Suisun be cleared of ships. Much of the fleet was moved out, and now only ten remain. It is unclear how much longer these ships will last, but they are the last of a dying breed. The oldest of the ships are to be stripped of their heavy metal content, then transported to Texas, Asia or elsewhere in California to be dismantled.
These guns are never going to fire again. The need for a reserve fleet of transport ships, in the event of World War III, is outweighed by the high environmental cost we pay to keep them afloat.
They Are Quite Ominous Looking
This photo shows the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet back in 2005. At the time, over seventy ships called Suisun home. Among the fleet was the famous Iowa, a World War 2-era battleship that is now anchored in Los Angeles. There, it serves as a museum.
Although access to the ships is strictly forbidden, that doesn’t mean they’re invisible. The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet can be easily seen from shore, floating ominously. It’s visible i you drive over the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, especially. They are not exactly the most beautiful addition to the scenery. In addition to the environmental problems they pose, they are also an aesthetic one.
Most of the ships are very old, many of them dating back even to WWII, like the Iowa. Nobody moves on them. Their decrepit forms, and the absence of any people aboard the ships, gives them a spooky air. Inclement weather makes the effect even more pronounced. If a fog bank rolls in, the fleet looks more like a ship graveyard than a reserve force. It’s cool to see from time to time, but looking at the floating wrecks all the time eventually led many people to consider the fleet an eyesore.
The Murmansk, An Abandoned Soviet Cruiser
This dilapidated pile of rust, half-submerged, is the Soviet cruiser Murmansk. It sat decaying in Norway, where it was one of the creepiest photo destinations in the country. It was a major fall from grace, after so many years of service to the USSR. The once stately Murmansk was doomed to sit in this compromised position for many years, until a major project was launched to dismantle it.
The Murmansk was decommissioned in 1994. It served, before then, for four decades. The Murmansk, after it was decommissioned, wasn’t supposed to exist at all. The ship was sold off for scrap metal, and was originally meant to be shipped to its buyer in India. Things did not go according to plan, though.
The Murmansk, on its way to India, was struck by a severe storm that it couldn’t weather. The ship collided with the shore off Sørvær, a small town in Norway. It didn’t move from that spot for many years. It collected rust until 2009, when Norway decided that it would have to be dismantled. This process, while it might sound as simple as putting a few sticks of dynamite in its hull, was extremely complicated. As well as expensive.
Destroying The Murmansk Was Harder Than It Sounded
When the Norwegian government decided to scrap the Murmansk in 2009, they had a long road ahead of them. Instead of destroying the ship while it sat in the water, they decided that a way would have to be found to dismantle it piecemeal while it was dry.
They could not, apparently, haul it to land and dismantle it there. They could also not destroy it with explosives for some reason, presumably because of possible environmental contamination. Instead, they decided to construct an enormous breakwater around the entire Murmansk. They then drained it completely, and took the ship apart one piece at a time.
The project was conceived in 2009 and not completed until 2013. It took about a year for the actual dismantling to occur. Now, the Murmansk is gone for good. It is probably a net positive for the region, as there is no longer a rusting hulk of a ship marring the view. It is certainly a loss for photographers who liked to capture images of creepy old ships.
It was certainly an old ship, too. Its hull was laid down in 1953, and the ship was commissioned in 1955. There are still rumors that the Murmansk may have contained radioactive materials.
The World’s Largest Ship Graveyard
Nouadhibou, a second-largest city in Mauritania, is home to the largest collection of abandoned ships on the planet. Dotting the Nouadhibou coastline, often in dense clusters, are about three hundred hulls of abandoned ships.
The graveyard began with the Chasseloup-Laubat, a cruiser in the French Navy. It was abandoned here and later converted into a floating theater in the twenties.
The reason for the huge collection of derelict ships is quite simple: money. The authorities there are reportedly very amenable to bribes. With so many layers of environmental vetting that are imposed upon any officially authorized ship scuttling, the prospect of an easy, clandestine dump must be very appealing to many ship owners. Thus, they collect on the beaches of Mauritania.
The ships sit in the water and on land, completely unmaintained. The eighties saw a boom of new ships being dumped there, with locals eager to make some fast cash following the nationalization of their fishing industry. Many of the ships were purchased by Mauritanian shipping merchants and later abandoned due to unexpectedly high cost of upkeep.
The graveyard, situated in Nouadhibou bay, is both very photogenic and very environmentally hazardous. While it is a novelty that draws international attention, it also draws scorn from concerned environmental groups.
Beautiful and Deadly
While these photos do have an air of romance about them, reality is anything but rosy. The region pays a very high price for these wrecks, as impressive and lucrative as they may be.
Unlike developed nations, countries like Mauritania do not have adequate infrastructure to properly dismantle ships. Were they to be properly scrapped, the vast majority of these vessels’ material could be salvaged for recycling or reuse. In the absence of that capability, though, they are dumped at great cost to human and environmental health.
These old ships can leech heavy metals, asbestos and oil into the water. These all pose serious threats. The article of greatest alarm, though, are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a carcinogenic group of chemicals that are now hyper-concentrated in the waters along Africa’s west coast. Many people believe that the ship graveyard is the primary culprit for this grave state of affairs. PCBs have been outlawed in the construction of new ships, but were prevalent in older models.
In the mid aughts, the Mauritanian government partnered with the European Union to properly destroy many of the old ships. It remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be. For now, the wrecks still stand.
The USS Oriskany, About To Die
This is the USS Oriskany, a prototype aircraft carrier that had a burial at sea after many years of service. The Oriskany was a long-hulled Essex-class carrier, also known as the Ticonderoga class of aircraft carrier. It was the first carrier to be built to accommodate the new jet-powered fighter planes that were entering service in the Air Force.
The Oriskany was an enormous ship. When it reached the end of its life, it posed quite a problem. What to do with a ship so huge it displaces 30,800 tons of water? You could attempt to dismantle it for scrap metal, but that would take forever, be very expensive and potentially dangerous, and it might be hard to find buyers for so much scrap. Or you could keep it docked somewhere as a floating museum, but such an enormous ship would take up too much room. The Navy decided that they would sink the Oriskany, creating a manmade reef that would come to be called “The Great Carrier Reef.”
Today, the Oriskany is about as well known as the Great Carrier Reef as it was for its military service. It was sunk off the coast of Florida, providing habitat for a huge amount of sea life. The scuttling, involving controlled demolition, was quite a sight to behold.
Preparing to Explode
The Oriskany, or “Mighty O,” was not operable at the time of its scuttling. The gigantic aircraft carrier had to be towed 22 miles off the coast of Florida in May of 2006, where it would meet its watery fate.
Scuttling a ship of this size is no easy matter. It required a huge amount of explosives – five hundred pounds of C4, to be precise. Engineers strapped the plastic explosive to structurally important parts of the ship, in the hope that when the bombs were detonated, the ship would slip easily beneath the waves. The bombs were detonated, creating a huge explosion that certainly did its job. The Oriskany corkscrewed its way to the sea floor. When it settled, it was the largest manmade reef on the planet.
The Oriskany had been through a lot. It served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It survived a major incident in 1966, in which a magnesium flare caused a shipboard fire that claimed the lives of 44 men. It was one of the worst naval fires since the Second World War. The Oriskany was decommissioned in 1976 and then sold for scrap in 1995, but the Navy repossessed the ship in 1997. Now, it sits on the ocean floor in an upright position.
The Oriskany Is Sunk
This photo captures the final moments of the USS Oriskany, before it began its afterlife as a home to various sea creatures. The explosion was fairly magnificent.
The Oriskany was the first American warship to ever be made into an artificial reef. It was authorized in the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act. Before it could be sunk to the bottom of the ocean, extensive environmental testing had to be conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency to prove that no harm would come to the seafloor habitat or creatures that occupied it. That approval was not forthcoming.
The Oriskany actually failed its first round of testing and had to be removed back to Texas. After the hurricane season passed, it was carted back to Florida to be given its burial at sea. The controlled explosions went off without incident, causing the ship to pitch vertically into the water and slowly sink down. It made a long journey all the way to the bottom, where it plunged into the sediment and stuck, permanently, in a vertical position. This vertical alignment is what makes it accessible to the casual diver. It’s a spooky dive, but one rich with both history and interesting sea life.
The Reef Is A Success
The Great Carrier Reef is, today, a very popular destination for recreational scuba divers. Despite being sunk so far from shore, the ship rests at a depth that is accessible to the lay diver.
The idea to sink the Oriskany to create a reef was first floated in 2003. The ship was towed to Corpus Christi, Texas, where crews started preparing the ship to comply with environmental regulations in order to be scuttled. There wasn’t a lot of precedent for this. The Mighty O was the first American warship that had been marked to be made into a reef. It was originally going to be sunk about 24 miles south of Pensacola, but the demolition was delayed by EPA red tape.
The EPA signed off on it in 2006, after assessing the risk of PCB poisoning. There were an estimated 750 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls aboard, used in insulation. However, the ship was towed to Pensacola that March to prepare for sinking. The event was observed by a coterie of Fish and Wildlife people, Department of Natural Resources people, the Coast Guard, the police and military personnel.
After the explosion, it took 37 minutes for the ship to sink, stern first. It settled, as anticipated, in a vertical position 210 feet below the surface. The wreck is now teeming with life.
A Guy Reenlisted On The Deck Of The Sunken Carrier
On July 6, 2007, Kevin Armold re-enlisted in the Navy while on the deck of the Oriskany. It was at the bottom of the ocean at the time. He was the first member of the navy to enlist on a sunken ship.
Major Shean Phelps administered the ceremony. Since they couldn’t hear each other, they used a talking apparatus to hear one another. They were “standing” on the smoking deck of the Oriskany, in about 85 feet of water. The historic ceremony was photographed. It was originally supposed to happen two days previous, on the Fourth of July, but they were prevented from doing it by bad weather.
Armold got his inspiration from a television special he saw about the Oriskany. “I’ve been on a carrier before,” he said, “but to see one that has the history that ship has … it’s a tremendously impressive sight.”
He signed a laminated contract and certificate with a grease pencil. It was a formality. The real documents were signed in ink on dry land. There may have been underwater reenlistments in the past, but none were ever conducted on the deck of a sunken ship. It was a moment in history that probably won’t be recreated.
The Soviet Submarine Graveyard
There is a spot on the Kola Peninsula in Russia where a pile of disused Soviet-era submarines collect rust. The Soviet submarine “graveyard,” close to Olenya Bay, is a bleak reminder of the USSR’s former military might.
The base, part of a closed town called Gadzhiyevo, is home to a pile of abandoned submarines. Some of them are as old as the seventies. The glut of submarines was a consequence of shipyards being too overworked to have the time or manpower to scrap older ships. Some of them were sunk, others simply dumped somewhere out of the way.
The submarines are a potentially serious contamination hazard. As they sit in a restricted zone, it’s not easy to get a clear bead on what condition they’re in, or how much pollutant they may be leeching into the water. We do have some fairly creepy photos of the old wrecks, which are said to be used mostly for target practice.
The subs are a monument to the fallen Soviet Union, but Russia’s navy is today the third strongest in the world, behind the United States and China. Hopefully their hulls are simply decaying, and not polluting the environment with anything too radioactive.
The Submarines Have Been There Since The Seventies
The submarine dump is found on the Kola Peninsula, a desolate expanse of tundra and hills. It is a fittingly bleak place to host a submarine graveyard. The rusted hulks of the submarines lay in a windswept bay where people rarely visit them.
The graveyard started forming during the seventies. As more and more orders poured in for new ships, older, obsolete ones were simply put out to pasture without scrapping them. They were tossed seemingly haphazardly into the water in a remote stretch of shoreline. Some of them sunk to the bottom, others remained partially submerged or beached on land. This one lists to the side ominously. There is no way to know what may or may not have made it into the water from the submarines.
The Cold War graveyard is in a very remote area, mostly populated by polar bears, foxes and other tundra life. It is not that far from the Russian border with Finland. A Google photo from 2007 showed about seven submarines still wrecked in a recessed bay. It is unknown exactly how many vessels now call the graveyard home. They will certainly never see action again, and they will probably never be fully dismantled or cleaned up. For now, and possibly forever, they sit accumulating barnacles and bullet holes.
A Submarine Rusts
Exposed to the elements for so long, the submarines look like abstract drawings of submarines. The paint on this one has flaked and rusted beyond recognition. Now, it looks more like a disused piece of farm equipment than a submarine that was once strapped with massive firepower.
Gadzhiyevo, the town close to where the submarines are “stored,” is a small village in the jurisdiction of the closed administrative-territorial formation of Alexadrovsk. It has a population of just over eleven thousand people, and the population appears to be gradually shrinking. The town has had many names, including Yagelnaya Guba, Gadzhiyevo, Murmansk-130 and Skalisty.
The town was renamed Gadzhiyevo in 1999, back from Skalisty. The name comes from Magomet Gadzhiyev, a submarine commander who served in World War II. Gadzhiyevo officially became a town in 1981. It spent seven years as a base for diesel submarines before being retooled to service nuclear submarines. It made the switch to nuclear in 1963. It was never exactly a bustling metropolis, but these remaindered subs are a testament to the town’s mounting irrelevance in the grander scheme of Russian military capacity. While it was once a very important part of the Soviet nuclear strategy, today it is not even close.
From Riches To Rags
The Soviet submarine program, like the American, found its origins in German technology encountered during the Second World War.
Germany had been banned from possessing submarines in the Treaty of Versailles, but they built them secretly during the thirties. When the War broke out, the Nazis only commanded 65 subs. Over the course of the conflict, they would build up the largest submarine fleet of any power involved in the War. Due to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany couldn’t hope to catch up to the British surface navy and therefore relied much more heavily on submarines, which they used to conduct “merchant warfare” against British ships carrying supplies.
The Soviets responded to the enormous German submarine fleet by building its own stable of subs based on German models. After WWII, the USSR continued to manufacture diesel-electric submarines to meet the challenge of the United States during the Cold War. The Americans were the first to launch a nuclear submarine in 1958, but the USSR wasn’t far behind. They launched their first nuclear submarine in 1960.
The Soviets also developed the SSGN, a nuclear submarine designed to launch cruise missiles against aircraft carriers. The USSR’s submarine fleet saw its peak in 1980, when it consisted of 480 vessels.
The Russian Navy Is Growing
Today, according to Global Firepower, America still leads Russia in strength of their respective submarine fleets. But not by as much as you might think.
The United States has the third strongest sub fleet of any country, behind North Korea and China. Russia is ranked number four. Today, the Russian navy commands 64 submarines. The United States has 68 subs, with 2 in reserve. This is not as significant a lead in numbers as might be anticipated.
Between 1998 and 2015, Russia allocated significantly increasing amounts of money to their military. This led to a spike in the number of navy vessels being constructed, with an initial focus on submarines, especially the Petersburg and Severodvinsk classes. Many of Russia’s older subs have also been revamped.
Russia has also announced plans to produce a sixth-generation SSBN. They are also working on the fifth generation of Borei-class submarines. They are part of an expanding Russian navy that has some American defense wonks chewing their pens in anxiety.
The subs pictured here will obviously not be participating in this naval facelift. They are relegated to continue decaying into nothingness over the coming decades, unless steps are taken to dismantle them completely.
One Of France’s Largest Warships
This is the Clemenceau, the sixth aircraft carrier manufactured for the French Navy and one of the largest. Nicknamed ‘le Clem,” the carrier was a historically significant vessel for the French military. Since the Second World War, France had been largely reliant upon the United States and the United Kingdom for military technology. The Clemenceau was a major jewel in France’s naval crown. It was decommissioned in 1997.
Le Clem had a tumultuous life. At the end, especially. The ship was originally supposed to be taken to India to be dismantled. It sailed right into a bunch of international political red tape, though, and was held up for a long time. India, through the Supreme Court, decided to bar its admittance to the country because of feared environmental contamination. The ship was boarded by activists and then was claimed by Egypt.
The Clemenceau was a hot potato for about five years, being moved from country to country. Finally, it was returned to sender. It wound up docked at Hartlepool, England. Finally, in 2010, it was destroyed. It had come to the end of its extremely circuitous path. The ship had served honorably for forty years, and suffered an end not necessarily befitting its stature.
The Clemenceau Was Small But Mighty
By the time it was dismantled in 2010, the Clemenceau had visited every single ocean and sea on the planet. It had traveled a total of over a million nautical miles. That equals out to 48 circumnavigations around the globe. That career lasted approximately 80,000 hours of active use, or 3,125 days on the ocean.
In a French tradition, the Clemenceau was home to multiple painters. The artists would spend a week to two months aboard the ship, working and being integrated into ship life.
It wasn’t all landscapes and still lives, though. The Clemenceau was able to transport nuclear weapons, that could be dropped by planes stationed aboard. Later in its career, the ship was also equipped to fire nukes itself. The Clemenceau was active in the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War and in Yugoslavia.
The Clemenceau was huge by French standards, but smaller than American and British carriers that inspired its design. It was built to incorporate many of the same design elements of its larger forebears, but smaller. French carriers were, however, outfitted with weaponry that was proportionately heavy for how big the ships were. Consequently, they tended to be unstable. They had to be retrofitted with larger hulls.
The HMS Plymouth, A Famous Ship
The HMS Plymouth was the most important vessel used by the British side of the Falklands War. It was used to bomb Argentine forces, who responded very much in kind. The Plymouth suffered heavy damage in the conflict, caused especially by a bomb that exploded on its deck. The bomb precipitated a below-deck fire from an exploded depth charge that threatened to sink the ship.
The Plymouth survived. It lived on to play host to the South Georgia Argentine forces surrendering to the British onboard. The Plymouth returned to the UK and was purchased by the Warship Preservation Trust to be maintained as a museum piece. The Trust went under in 2006, leaving the Plymouth without a hook to hang its hat. It would prove the beginning of the end for the venerated warship.
The Plymouth landed in Birkenhead, where it languished for years. It was not maintained, and degraded significantly. Finally, it was transported to Turkey where it was demolished in 2014. It was not a popular move, with much of the British public wanting to preserve the warship. For a ship that was so popular and played such a historic role, it met with a surprisingly inglorious fate.
It’s Incredible The Plymouth Didn’t Sink
The Plymouth was a Rothesay-class ship, one of twelve. It was among the first wave of Royal Navy ships that responded to the Argentine invasion of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. It was active during the entire conflict, and participated in the recapture of South Georgia on April 28.
The Plymouth launched helicopters that deployed marines, and also bombed Argentine troops from the sea. The Plymouth also launched a helicopter that attacked the Argentinian submarine Santa Fe. Lieutenant commander Alfredo Astiz signed the Argentine surrender of South Georgia aboard the Plymouth, after which the Plymouth returned to shelling Argentine troops.
The Plymouth was struck with four bombs dropped by Argentine fighter-bombers on June 8. One of the bombs set off a depth charge stored below deck. Miraculously, none of the four bombs actually exploded upon impact. Five British personnel were injured but the fire was contained and the Plymouth did not sink.
After the close of hostilities, the Plymouth traveled to Rosyth Dockyard, where it was fully repaired. It was the last action the Plymouth saw before being discarded and eventually dismantled. It is incredible that the ship could survive in such extreme circumstances only to be mothballed and then destroyed many years later.
The Plymouth Is Destroyed
The Falklands War was highly controversial. Although short, the War saw large casualties. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s popularity soared. The success of the Falkland military campaign is considered to have solidified the Conservative party’s hold over the government, making up for a significant popularity deficit they’d been running to the SDP-Liberal Alliance beforehand.
The Plymouth’s destruction was an emotional event for many. The day it was disassembled, more than fifty of its former crew were present to pay their respects. They held a memorial for the thirtieth anniversary of the War’s end in May of 2012. Captain David Pentreath said that he regretted to see the Plymouth departing permanently but that its spirit would be kept alive by the people who crewed it.
Pentreath also remarked on how sad it made him to see a population so apathetic towards preserving the ship as an article of historical importance. It was, in his eyes and in the eyes of those who lamented its destruction, not an acceptable end to such a venerable ship. The money just wasn’t there though. Nor was the interest. Maintaining ships as museum pieces takes a big expenditure of time, funds, manpower and physical space.
Inside the Plymouth
The inside of the Plymouth looked just like it did when it was abandoned. Chairs and a bunk sit unused, creepy reminders of the life it once saw.
The interiors of abandoned navy ships are the stuff of horror movies. It’s hard not to imagine beady little goblin eyes peering out at you from inside the cabinets and closets.
When the Plymouth first launched, it was equipped to handle 152 people. It was later modified to be able to handle a larger crew. When it was scrapped, the ship was able to hold 235 people. It was a large ship, 370 feet long and able to displace up to 2,560 tons of water. It’s amazing that pieces of engineering this large can wind up of use to nobody but spiders and barnacles.
The Plymouth saw major renovations between 1966 and 1969. It had a hangar and flight deck installed to accommodate a Westland Wasp helicopter. They also installed a Seacat missile launcher. The Plymouth was also equipped with two 20mm cannons.
It’s a shame that such a prodigious vessel had to ultimately be relegated to the scrap heap. You would think there’d be a use for it more helpful than just dismantling it for parts.
The HMS Bronington, Put Out to Pasture
This is the HMS Bronington, a stately British minesweeper that used to be commanded by Prince Charles. It was launched in 1953, during a time when the British Navy was undergoing changes. It still bore the trademark mahogany hull of a ‘wooden wall’ ship, a British hallmark of naval design that came to an end around that time as shipbuilders moved towards metals and synthetic materials. Although it became a dilapidated pile of rebar, it was once a stately and well renowned vessel.
The Bronington was purchased by the Warship Preservation Trust in the early aughts. However, when the Trust folded, the Bronington was bereft of anyone to care for it.
The Bronington was moved to Birkenhead, where it sat for years, collecting rust. The ship was left in such poor condition that it began to sink. There was neither interest nor funding to preserve the Bronington. Eventually, the disrepair grew so severe that it sank at her moorings on March 17, 2016. After it sank, it was decided that the ship would be scrapped completely. A sad end for a vessel that was once patronized by the Prince of Wales. The 153-foot-long minesweeper had reached the end of its days in perhaps the most melancholic way possible for any warship.
The UK’s Abandoned Nuclear Subs
The Cold War saw all kinds of paranoiac military projects, on all sides. See America’s “Operation Chrome Dome,” in which the Air Force kept nuke-equipped bombers airborne close to Soviet borders continuously, until one of them crashed. One other similar enterprise was the the UK’s production of Resolution-class submarines, which now sit unused.
The Resolution-class subs were meant to fill a gap in the mutually-assured destruction strategy of nuclear deterrence. With the advent of anti-aircraft missiles, Britain didn’t think they could rely upon aircraft to drop nukes on Russian cities in the event of a full-blown war. They developed the Resolution subs in response. Each of them (the Resolution, the Repulse, the Renown and the Revenge) carried three nuclear bombs apiece.
If nuclear hostilities were to break out, the Resolution subs were to launch their nukes on Moscow and other major cities in the USSR. They would have been able to kill millions. They also represented a fraction of the world’s combined nuclear arsenal. The subs were never used, and were phased out in 1996 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
They can still be observed docked at Rosyth Dockyard Fife in Scotland.
The Mothball Fleet, Infiltrated
Of all the derelict warships in the world, the ships at Suisun Bay are still the most visually compelling and interesting to the urban explorer types. A photographer in San Francisco named Scott Haefner recently snuck aboard some of the ships at Suisun to document what they looked like.
In short, they look bad. The hulls are totally decrepit. Their decks are covered in rust and the quarters where Haefner and friends hid, covered in mildew and full of detritus. Despite the fact that there’s basically nothing of value onboard the ships, they are heavily patrolled by military security. Haefner and his cohort of fellow photographers had to sneak past active security patrols in order to get aboard the ships. Once aboard, they slept in captains quarters for whole weekends.
It’s an interesting, if illegal, project. It seems like something not worth getting arrested (or shot) over. It did reveal, though, that the mothball fleet is truly worthy of its name. It looks like these vessels have really seen their last days. Their time in the sun is done, and they are bound to be scrapped sooner than later. Until then, it’s not clear why they need to be kept under such close watch.
Inside A Mothballed Ship
The inside of one of the mothballed ships at Suisun. It looks like someone just stepped away from their desk. It’s easy to imagine what life would have looked like aboard the ship while it was still active. You can almost hear papers shuffling.
Derelict warships are relatively rare. They are, though, fodder for photography. Every picture seems to tell a story.
Taken in aggregate, they tell a much bigger story. What do we do with our massive stockpiles of military equipment once technological advances render them obsolete? The world’s navies are larger than they’ve ever been, and technology is advancing faster than it ever has. Which means we will be tasked with scrapping more and more of these vessels in the future. Hopefully, we will be able to do it in a way that doesn’t cause environmental calamity.
Of even greater concern are our giant stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which pose various kinds of mortal threats.
For now, these abandoned warships are slightly creepy, slightly beautiful floating (or sinking) monuments to the engineering feats of yesteryear. If you want to see one of them, you may want to take advantage of the moment. They are going the way of the dinosaur.
Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.