The Wasted Remains


This past weekend, Martin and I set out to locate a Ship Graveyard under the Outerbridge Crossing, between Staten Island and New Jersey on a waterway called the Arthur Kill.  It’s possible to get to the rivers edge by foot and view the rot from shore, but the real treat is getting up close.  Our put-in-point, the Conference House on the South Shore of Staten Island was a bit of a schlep opening to a picturesque  view of Perth Amboy across the river. Its boardwalk and sailing ships moored in front of historic buildings and glistening steeples could rival any New England town for most beautiful port.

The Staten Island side was strewn with litter, old tires, and a no longer working pier.  The water was far from clear.  We paddled up river with the tugs, the barges, the oiler tankers, the sightseeing cruises, the jet skis and the pleasure crafters.  Paddling under structures as large as the Outerbridge is a uniquely urban experience in unknowable scale.

Over the last century, Witte Marine slowly dismantled hundreds of ships from a once crowded bustling New York coastline.  Even with the steady stream of salvage work and deconstruction, the ships started to accumulate on the shores of Arthur Kill leaving us with works of art carved away by nature and turning into wildlife refuges.  In many cases, so little remains that the ships are no longer obviously ships.

A 1990 New York Times story reported that 200 ships were sharing space in Witte’s Yard, now owned by Donjon Marine.  Today, there are fewer than 25.  The wooden sides and steel frames of these ships, now mired in muck, delight adventurers with their wondering silence.

Paddling up close to the artful decay, you see minnows, crabs, mussels and when we were there, two very large and scraggly osprey nests haphazardly perched on the highest remaining steel uprights, with chicks present and two loud aggressive mothers.

The Arthur Kill ship graveyard was never meant to become such a decrepit spectacle.  After World War II, the adjacent scrapyard began to purchase scores of outdated vessels, with the intention of harvesting them for anything of value.  Unable to keep pace with the influx of boats, they were allowed to fall further into disrepair and no longer worth the effort.  Full of toxic substances, they were left to rot.

Like so many relics of our industrial past, the graveyard has attracted artists and vandals over the years. The small ships closest to shore are splattered with graffiti, while those farther out are subjects for oil painters, water colorists and photographers.   South Korean artist, Miru Kim, produced a visually striking  32-minute documentary, Graves of Arthur Kill, that features rare footage of the graveyard’s most gorgeous wrecks.

So, where do ships go to die these days?

National Geographic did their usual amazing storytelling about ship breaking and it was not pretty.  Oceangoing vessels are not built to be taken apart.  They’re designed to withstand extreme forces in some of the planet’s most difficult environments, and they’re often constructed with asbestos and lead.  Yet the life span of most ships is only 25 to 30 years because the cost to insure and maintain aging vessels makes them unprofitable to operate.  Their value is contained mostly in their steel bodies.  When ships are scrapped in the developed world, the process is more strictly regulated and expensive, so the bulk of the world’s shipbreaking is done in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where labor is cheap and oversight is minimal.–huge-tankers-cruise-liners-scrapped-shorefront-workers-toil-2-day.html   for great photos.

A massive Gadani ship-breaking yard stretches for miles along the coast near Karachi, Pakistan.  Workers are low paid and work in filthy and dangerous conditions.  A shortage of recruits is not an issue.  The facility reduces around 100 ships a year into sheets of metal, pipes and working machines.  It produces about a million tons of steel fulfilling most of Pakistan’s demand for construction metal.  More than 90 percent of each ship is recycled .

The process begins after a ship-breaker acquires a vessel from an international broker dealing in outdated ships.  A captain who specializes in beaching large craft is hired to deliver it to the breaker’s yard, generally a sliver of beach barely a hundred yards wide.     This is fun to watch!

Once the ship is mired in the mud, its liquids are siphoned out, including remaining diesel fuel, engine oil, and firefighting chemicals, which are resold.  Then the machinery and fittings are stripped.  Everything is removed and sold to salvage dealers—from enormous engines, batteries, generators, and miles of copper wiring to the crew bunks, portholes, lifeboats, hidden contraband and electronic dials from the bridge.

The cost of dealing with abandoned commercial vessels can easily reach into the hundreds of thousands.  To remove and dispose of Northern Retriever, a 186-foot steel Navy tug built in 1943, it cost $873,000 .  The cost of having a 40-foot boat taken to a landfill and demolished could range from $5,000 to $10,000.

In Shilshole Bay Marina, Seattle, Washington sits what was once somebody’s pleasure boat.  By the time it was hauled out of the water, the 60-foot rumrunner had a hole in its side big enough to climb through.  Thieves had been poaching items off this abandoned boat for years.

Maritime officials say abandoned boats are typically a casualty of misguided dreams.  Someone buys a used boat with the intention of fixing it up, without any idea about the cost of maintenance and mooring.   Reality sets in, the boat is sold again and the process is repeated.   Eventually it becomes a rundown liability and the owner leaves it in a marina or ties it to a buoy and walks away.

The situation isn’t unusual.   Derelict boats can pose serious environmental hazards, navigational hazards and costly nightmares for the marinas and government agencies left to deal with them.  Most boats contain a toxic stew of chemicals—fuel, oil, cleaning materials, batteries, solvents—that can leak out and harm marine life.

While pleasure crafts comprise the vast majority of derelict vessels, industry-specific abandonments are not uncommon.  In the Northwest, increased numbers of abandoned fishing boats followed the decline of the salmon fishery over the past few decades.  Similarly, the Gulf Coast becomes a dumping ground for barges when the oil industry experiences a downturn.

How You Can Help:

  • Proper vessel disposal is a vital part of clean and responsible boating.  It is important that all vessel owners properly dispose of their vessels at the appropriate time.
  • Never abandon or sink a vessel to dispose of it.
  • There are several options for proper vessel disposal: No-cost Vessel Turn-In Programs, donating to charities or causes, recycling, or dismantling for reuse.
  • The Division of Boating and Waterways has a useful website with lots of information.
  • Hurricane Sandy clean up can no longer be removed because the heaps are filled with living creatures!  Cool!

Until next week,   Sandy Heap

Garbage Girl




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