Ships and boats are ancient inventions whose rise parallels the spirit of human adventure. From antiquity to modernity great powers have relied on shipping to expand empires, while grand liners transported tourists to far flung places previously only accessible to the imagination. But the rise of air travel and decline of shipbuilding have left coasts and rivers littered with abandoned ships, boats and shipyards, that may not look pretty but provide a fascinating retrospective subject for photographers and maritime enthusiasts.
While stricken ships and boats are usually salvaged for scrap, and abandoned docks and shipyards eventually repurposed, the process can take years. Meanwhile, rusting ships and decaying infrastructure litter coastlines and river banks, their mighty hulks a sign of industrial decline in many countries. (The above ships include SS United States and TSS Duke of Lancaster – full feature.)
While this article primarily examines “above-water” shipwrecks, some of the most impressive “abandoned” ships live on beneath the waves. This spectral vessel is the HMHS Britannic, not as famous as her legendary sister Titanic, but arguably one of the world’s most spectacular – and ghostly – wrecks. Britannic was sunk by a mine in November 1916 while serving as a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea.
Grand liners like Titanic and Britannic may have a romantic edge (in part due to Hollywood) over merchant and military shipping, but the latter has contributed many wrecks to the ocean floor – some of which can still be seen above the surface of the water. Aircraft carriers and battleships are among the most impressive, their massive guns encrusted with marine life that still look foreboding to this day. These rusty wrecks include Soviet cruiser Murmansk, lost in 1994 while under tow to India for scrapping, and German battlecruiser Hindenburg, scuttled at Scapa Flow, Orkney.
With the exception of supertankers, aircraft carriers are among the largest ships ever built, offering up a fortune in scrap metal after they’re taken out of service. French carrier Clemenceau was set to be scrapped in India before protests from environmental groups scuppered the plans. The heavily contaminated ship is currently being decomissioned by a specialist team at Hartlepool, UK, but scrapping an aircraft carrier can be a complex process.
(Images: U.S. Federal Government, public domain)
Sinking one, on the other hand, can be achieved far more quickly, as was the case with USS Oriskany scuttled off the coast of Florida to become the world’s largest artificial reef. Oriskany is now fondly known as the Great Carrier Reef in a nod to the popular Australian dive spot, and was named one of the top ten dive sites in the world by The Times of London in 2007.
Of course, Oriskany was subjected to a thorough decontamination process before sinking to protect against future environmental problems. But when cargo ship New Flame collided with a tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar, the first priority was to pump any remaining fuel off the vessel before salvage (fortunately the twin hulled tanker made it back to port). Semi-submerged, the New Flame’s stern was scrapped after the ship broke in half, but the bow is reportedly embroiled in an ongoing salvage saga featured on National Geographic.
Ship graveyards are fewer today than in previous years due to more stringent environmental regulations, but there are still some haunting sites on the waterscape. The Staten Island boat graveyard is one of the most famous, featuring on numerous sites including Opacity, Freshkills Park, NYC Go, Gadling and Hours of Darkness. It’s a major draw for urban explorers, photographers and amateur maritime historians. Among the condemned vessels is a former Staten Island ferry, just one of many among an evolving fleet that carried passengers between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island for generations.
Other ship graveyards that have survived due to their remote location have ironically become tourist attractions. The corroding factory ships at the abandoned whaling station Grytviken on South Georgia Island are often visited during Antarctic cruises, while the Aral Sea ship graveyards (below) are the most astounding – and environmentally concerning.
During the 1960s the Soviets decided to divert two rivers feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert for cotton production. The result was a heavily contaminated basin littered with the rusting hulks of former fishing boats, a practically dead ecosystem and a decimated fishing industry. The amount of water lost is said to be equivalent to the complete draining of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
For all their haunting appeal, abandoned ships can be hazardous objects and we never recommend climbing aboard. But not all are riddled with pollutants and some, like disused fishing boats lying near the sea – have a wistful quality that harks back to an earlier time. Offering a great subject for photographers, these old vessels go hand in hand with the lonely nature of the sea and a yearning for a tough yet more simple way of life.
In addition to rusting vessels both large and small, the decline of shipping in many parts of the world has rendered shipyards and docks partially redundant or completely derelict. Some have been regenerated for modern commercial and residential use, while others are little more than silent reminders of their proud past. Harland and Wolff in Belfast is famous for building the Titanic, and while the yard remains active, the original Drawing Office and slipway where the liner was built are long since abandoned.
The famous wasteland is now at the heart of an exciting development called the Titanic Quarter, constructed around the restored slipways (Titanic’s sister ship Olympic was constructed alongside) and Drawing Office where the liners were designed. Whether any of the original steam cranes that still exist at the yard will survive the redevelopment remains to be seen. Find out more in our Titanic feature.
The future is less certain for other abandoned shipyards and docks that linger on in dereliction. In 1914 British shipyards produced more tonnage than the rest of the world combined. But by the late 20th century British shipbuilding was lucky to even be considered a shadow of its former self. The abandoned dry docks at South Shields (top) and Glasgow yard building (centre) more accurately reflect the state of current shipbuilding in the UK, while the lower image of the Dry Dock Engine Works-Detroit Dry Dock Company Complex harks back to the once impressive maritime manufacturing industry of Detroit, Michigan, and underscores the hard times upon which that city has fallen.
J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting “The Fighting Temeraire” is a symbolic work that depicts the end of an epoch. It reflects the shift from sail to steam vessels, as the old warrior and veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar is towed down the River Thames from Chatham Docks to the breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe. Turner gives HMS Temeraire an ethereal glow as the sun sets behind the ghostly sails of another sailing ship on the horizon. If this painting bids farewell to wind powered vessels, the photographs above do so for much of our more modern shipping. Today some of the Temeraire’s timbers have been refashioned into a communion table and two bishop’s chairs at the Church of St Mary, Rotherhithe.