Although I enjoy almost every type of exploration, be that tunnels, buildings or cranes, my favourite would have to be ships. By their nature, ships as a destination tend to be hard to come by, warships even more so. This is down to a variety of reasons. Firstly, ships tend to end active service in one of three ways. They sink, get opened to the public or are scrapped. If its one of the first two, you can usually access them legitimately, either by taking a tour, or following a diving team if they sank in shallower waters. While you can still technically explore a ship that’s open to the public, that tends to class more as infiltration.
If its the third outcome and the ship is to be scrapped, you have the period of time in which it awaits this fate as your window of opportunity. However, now you have the issue of where the ship is actually going to be kept during this time. Unless docked, which brings about the issue of infiltrating dockyards, ships destined for the scrapyard are usually moored in bays and larger rivers. This obviously puts water between you and your target, which unless you’re Jesus, can prove troubling.
Finally you have the issue of security. With metal prices as they are, disused ships are an attractive target to thieves, and owners will usually install some form of security to combat them. All this combined greatly narrows down the options from an already dwindling list of opportunities. As such, when a possibility arises, you have to take it, as you never know when the next one will be.
So this brings us to today’s opportunity, the French Navy’s Atlantic ghost fleet, a collection of vessels ranging in size from patrol boats to cruisers. Located near the Brest naval yard in France, these decommissioned ships are stored here due to the protection the bay offers. Large hills and cliffs either side mean the waters remain calm even in times of high wind and storms. Its close proximity to the base almost mean that parts can be salvaged should the need arise.
Our original plan was to swim, we were all certainly capable, but we eventually decided against it for two reasons. Although the waters were calm, the current was fairly strong. The journey out wouldn’t be an issue, but coming back we felt fatigue after the long drive and time spent on the ships might be. Secondly, equipment. Water and electricity do not mix, so we would need to use some form of dry-bag, something which I have little faith in. The thought of reopening it after a swim only to find all our equipment ruined was a risk I didn’t want to take. As such we opted for a boat.
Although in a fairly secluded area, the waters were frequently patrolled by the Gendarmerie Maritime, part of the French armed forces. We had heard their patrol included a sweep of the ships and that they would also board them. While we would likely have space to hide ourselves, our boat would easily give us away. As such, they were something that needed to be avoided, so we decided to use the cover of night to our advantage.
The fleet was moored in three clusters, two containing smaller ships, with the main, larger ships surrounding the cruiser Colbert. Given it was clearly the largest and most equipped, the Colbert was our obvious target. Laid down in 1953 and launched three years later, the Colbert (C611), was a De Grasse class, anti-aircraft cruiser. The second of its kind, she was designed with power in mind, fitted with sixteen 127 mm AA and twenty 57 mm mod 51 guns.
As we quietly rowed off into the darkness, our vessel roughly aimed at the silhouetted hulks, a strong emotion came over me. Fear. I was terrified, unjustifiably so. In recent years, myself and others I know have pushed what we feel is possible to accomplish and sometimes, not all, this would place us in situations that could be classed as fear enduing. Being somewhere high, enclosed or unpredictable, locations that have genuine risks to be mindful of.
The ships of course had their own risks, but none that could result in serious injury or death, so why was I nervous? It wasn’t the possibility of being caught by the patrolling military or the usual slips, trips and falls that you might associate with exploring, it was the water. The black, still water that light failed to penetrate.
I had been overcome with aquaphobia, the water to me was an acid and falling in would spell my end game. Now I can swim, had a boat should I fall in and was surrounded by those who could rescue me, but yet still I sat there, gripping the fabric like my life depended on it. I think I had seen far too many horror films where the hands of the dead would break the surface, pulling their victims from whatever boat, platform or shore they stood upon into the deep.
However, this feeling soon faded. Its hard to focus on other problems when you’re trying to avoid puncturing the only thing keeping you afloat on the rusty bowels of your target. As we had arrived late, the sun already set, we didn’t have a chance to work out how we would actually climb aboard the ships. With the decks several meters above the water and no ladders in sight, climbing the mooring lines seemed to be the only option.
Twenty minutes later, after some back and forth, we were all aboard. Most of the cruiser cluster was now nothing more than floating heaps of rust, their interior and lower decks completely stripped and unexciting. While some still retained external features, we were quick to see them all, progressing on towards the Colbert, which owing to its time as a museum from 1993 to 2007 was the most intact.
Although certainly not live or capable of function, the majority of all its heavy weaponry remained on board, several pieces being replaced with replica’s, the Masurca surface-to-air missiles for example. I was in heaven. I have a personal fascination with warships from the early to mid 1900′s, a time when the large diameter gun was king. They just feel more imposing, threatening, dangerous when compared to their modern counterparts.
Now I know military technology has come along way since then. A ship of this design with a heavy gun armament operating today, would easily be taken out before their attacker even came into visual range. This is partly why the Colbert received extensive upgrades and modifications in the early 1970′s to become a missile cruiser. This included the addition of multiple rapid fire artillery and AA guns, the double ramp Masurca launcher and four Exocet missile systems.
These upgrades would never be used in a combat situation, the Colbert now mainly tasked with humanitarian and representative duties. Although operating in the Gulf War, she gained a reputation within the French Navy as the ship that never fired a single shot in anger, being decommissioned a few months later in 1991.
Like a previous adventure to a floating graveyard, with so much to see, explore and photograph, we sadly ran out of time. Failing to get to the smaller ships. With the sun now rising and the return of the Military unenviable, we had no choice but to leave. It was either that or risk playing cat and mouse with arrest, but considering how well our trip had been so far, it seemed stupid to push our luck any further.
As we sat in our boat, removing our mooring line, we paid our last farewells and cast of towards the shore.