Warships, tall ships and historic watercraft of the Bay Area

The USS Hornet looms large over our tour group (L to R, Tom Wilson, Tom Garing, Rick Dubin and author Tim Viall).

Kids can get a lesson in piloting a huge aircraft carrier in the Hornet’s bridge, guided by docents, many of them former crew members (photo courtesy Carri Stever).
The Hornet’s flight deck, as seen from the bridge, saw Jimmie Doolittle’s squadron of B-25s depart on secret mission to attack Japan in World War II (photo courtesy Carri Stever).


At right, the Cape Fear, a supply vessel that carries barges, is largest of the ghost fleet, at 880 feet in length with 100 foot beam; it stands as silent sentinel over five other old Navy ships.

L to R; the Triumph, an ocean survey vessel built in 1984, and two 1943 Coast Guard bouy tenders, lie quietly at anchor, part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet
The Green Mountain State is one of 18 old Navy and Coast Guard ships that stand “at the ready” in Suisun Bay.
San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier is home to eight historic ships, like the Balclutha, and 1886 three-masted schooner (at left).

Some as long as three football fields, these mighty ships helped win World War II and Operation Desert Storm, shipped goods all over the world, ferried passengers and hauled hay in San Francisco Bay – they are the warships, tall ships and historic watercraft of the Bay Area.

The USS Hornet is a World War II air craft carrier and floating museum in Alameda, the Cape Fear is part of the “ghost fleet” (the National Defense Reserve Fleet) in Suisun Bay; the Balclutha is an 1886 schooner tied up at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco Bay.  They make up part of more than two dozen warships and historic watercraft around the Bay Area.  All can be seen for little or no money, and all are within a 90 minute drive of Stockton.

So, let’s set sail, starting with the USS Hornet in Alameda. Sure to please youngsters and boat-lovers alike, a tour of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier also includes almost a dozen other newer Navy ships moored nearby and thousands of pleasure boats in Alameda marinas.


On April 2, 1942, the USS Hornet (CV8), an aircraft carrier based out of Alameda, led a task force fleet of carriers and destroyers on a top-secret mission to Japan.  On April 18, Lt. Colonel Jimmie Doolittle led a flight of 16 B-25 bombers on a daring mission over Japan, hitting targets in Tokyo, Yokohama and other cities, a remarkable victory and the first strike on Japan’s mainland since the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese that brought America into the war.   Doolittle, a native of Alameda, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership.  This ship was sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz in October, 1942.

The Kearsarge was renamed the USS Hornet (CV12, the ship on display in Alameda) and would continue the fight in WWII.  The Hornet would anchor its place in history again, when on July 24, 1969, President Richard Nixon and other dignitaries would stand on the Hornet flight deck when the carrier recovered astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and their spacecraft Columbia after Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.

The USS Hornet (CV12) is open for tours at the Alameda Navy Ship Yard in Alameda.  Also on display are newer Navy ships like the USNS Cape Henry, recently at anchor across the pier from the Hornet, a unique “at the ready” Navy cargo ship with a diagonally-cut stern, so it can immediately tie-up at piers around the world and disgorge its military cargo. 

The USS Hornet is open for tours at the Alameda Navy Ship Yard in Alameda.  Also on display are newer Navy ships like the USNS Cape Henry, recently at anchor across the pier from the Hornet, a unique “at the ready” Navy cargo ship with a diagonally-cut stern, so it can immediately tie-up at piers around the world and disgorge its military cargo. 

While in Alameda, we also took the time to walk through several marinas.   Alameda, an island in the San Francisco Bay and immediately adjacent to Oakland, is home to several thousand private yachts and sailboats.  It’s a kid’s and boat-lover’s paradise! 

From Alameda, tour over to the Carquinez Straights/Suisun Bay area, where about 20 of the National Defense Reserve Fleet remain.  Once numbering in the hundreds, this mothballed fleet of old Navy cargo and specialty ships now number about 18; with the others having been retired – most of them scrapped.  The remaining ships offer a ghostly presence, anchored side by side, about a mile east of the I-680 bridge across the Carquinez Straights.

One can get a good view from the shore, but you will need good binoculars or a friend with a boat to see a close-up view.  We launched a friend’s 22 foot powerboat at the Martinez Marina, and motored east about two miles, where we spent several hours prowling around the old ships.  Most appeared in “near ready condition”, for potential use in wartime or in a national emergency. 

Typical of the ghost fleet was the Cape Fear, the largest at 880 feet in length, 100 feet across the beam, built in 1971.  This ship is a LASH ship (Lighter Aboard Ship) barge carrier, designed to carry, launch and service its own fleet of barges – well suited to military cargo transport and a ship that was used in Operation Desert Storm.

We toured past 18 vessels, ranging in age from two old Coast Guard buoy tenders made in 1943, to a number of cargo ships dating to the 1960s to 80s, and the newest, the Triumph, an ocean survey ship made as recently as 1984.  Most of these ships appeared in good condition, ready to go back into use if needed.  The most decrepit of the mothball fleet have been hauled away since 2008, most scrapped for their metal in the US or other countries (after a number of environmental groups sued the government to end its pollution of the Bay and Delta).

San Francisco’s historic ship inventory is also deep, with the Hyde Street Pier featuring eight historic ships of varying age and former use, such as the Balclutha, a three-masted, square-rigged 1886 tall ship that carried goods around the world.  Just blocks away are the Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien and the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine, moored at Fisherman’s Wharf.  We will feature more on these ships with our second installment, next week!

How to get there: The USS Hornet Museum is just 54 miles/one hour from Stockton, located at 707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3, Alameda, CA.  From Stockton, we went south on Interstate 5, west on I-205, west on I-580, west on I-238, north on I-880 to eventually reach the Alameda exit.  From Alameda, it’s about 45 minutes to get a closeup view of the ghost fleet in Suisun Bay; we took Hwy. 24 east out of Oakland, go north on I-680, cross the Carquinez Bridge (you will see the ghost fleet off the right side of the bridge) and exit just over the bridge to get down near Suisun Bay (take your binoculars!).

What’s nearby: Close to Alameda is Jack London Square, across the estuary from Alameda and featuring its own dose of history, scenic boat-viewing and numerous restaurants to choose from. Across from Suisun Bay are   The quaint towns of Martinez and Benecia are, respectively, on the south and north sides of the Carquinez Straights and offer history, nifty old downtowns and great restaurant choices.

What to take: Good walking shoes, bicycles if a cyclist, snacks, drinks, a good map or GPS unit and your camera!

More info: For the USS Hornet in Alameda, http://www.uss-hornet.org/, (510) 521-8448.  For more insight into the ghost fleet in Suisun Bay, go to www.marad.dot.gov.

Next week, we visit the tall ships and historic craft at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien (a Liberty Ship, http://www.ssjeremiahobrien.org/) and the USS Pampanito (a World War II submarine, http://www.maritime.org/pamphome.htm/), both docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/valleytravel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Happy travels in the west!

And, as a sidebar: Stockton has both a long history in historic ship-building, and can lay claim to at least one warship of historic consequence!  The USS Lucid, a 172 foot, Aggressive Class mine sweeper, built in 1953 in New Orleans and identical to three other mine sweepers built in Stockton, is currently being refurbished here in Stockton.  For insight, www.stocktonhistoricalmaritimemuseum.org.

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