Oakland Tribune June 25, 2011

In the Heart of Giants: Ghost Ship Adventure

by Jessica A. York

They were like sirens, calling in the moonlit dark.

Years of enjoying the view of the Suisun Bay Reserve “mothball” Fleet from a distance proved too great a tease for three area men, leading to five successful covert and difficult night trips.

Scott Haefner, Jon Haeber and Stephen Freskos spent weekends during a recent 18-month period exploring the old fleet vessels. Aboard—cameras, sleeping bags and flashlights in hand—the three captured an uncommon vantage point. The former battle, cargo and merchant vessels set aside years ago in case of national emergency have a life expectancy limited by ongoing vessel dismantling and recycling work.

“Hearing the noises, the wildlife out there, is almost akin to being in the wilderness on your own,” Haeber, 36, said. “I see a sort of very visceral, religious, spiritual component to it that is a huge draw for me, myself.”

Haefner, Haeber and Freskos are “urban explorers,” generally meaning they visit and photograph abandoned or little-known man-made structures, typically without permission.

They gained access to the fleet using an inflatable raft, oars and a battery-powered motor.

Freskos, of San Jose and the only one of the three adventurers who grew up in the Bay Area, said urban explorers are “connoisseurs of falling apart things.”

“We’re not criminals and we’re not bad people—we’re just curious,” said 33-year-old Freskos, who said he has traveled to hundreds of

closed and abandoned sites over the years. “I think because we’re willing to break the law, to trespass, that people assign all kinds of other evil motives to us. But it’s really a childlike curiosity that rules the day with us.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to inquiries concerning the consequences of illegal entry onto the reserve ships. Haefner acknowledged that “the implications of getting caught out there, I’m sure, would be not good.”

In recognition of potential repercussions for their trip, the trio waited an unspecified time period after their last visit to the fleet before going public—both online and in person—with photographs. In May, they hosted a public showing and discussion of their work in San Francisco, titled “Mothball Fleet Revealed: Journey Inside the Ghost Ships of San Francisco,” drawing an estimated 150 people.

All three have also individually posted photography from their trips online. They have talked about publishing a book.

Haeber, who moved to Massachusetts this week from Richmond to seek a graduate degree in public history, said a peripheral desire to photograph the fleet from on board the ships was recently pushed to the forefront by ongoing dismantling efforts.

Haeber, 29, said he sees the illegal fleet visits as an important documentation of a historic resource, and that he has attempted on past exploration trips to work through established bureaucratic processes, without success.

“So many people are afraid of being sued these days, or afraid of being hurt or afraid of being blamed for something,” said Haeber, adding that the three took safety precautions. “I’ve realized that it’s much easier to just walk in and take pictures and deal with it later.”

According to officials for fleet caretakers, the U.S. Maritime Administration, fleet tour requests are reviewed for legality, legitimacy, safety, benefit to the government and effect on ongoing operations.

“We recently took additional security steps, reviewed our procedures, and reinforced the training with our employees to prevent trespassing at the SBRF, which is federal property,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email to the Times-Herald.

“There were just so many doors, so many access points that as much as MARAD tries, with persistence, typically … you could find a way to get inside most ships in the fleet,” Haefner said.

Haeber said increased security ultimately put a halt to the group’s trips.

“At one point, it was no longer fun for us, because we were always worried about being spotlighted by security, or being seen by security,” Haeber said.

The photography project has not completely ended. Haefner has taken numerous trips to Mare Island to document the dismantling of the fleet’s former Solon Turman, with permission to fly a kite-lifted camera over the work site.

“It’s amazing how beautiful these ‘ugly things’ are, if you frame them in the right way,” Haefner said out at Mare Island last week. “Especially at night time, when you’re free to control the lighting and it’s just limitless what you can do.”

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