New York, New York

What Lies (Horribly) Beneath

It’s no surprise people are afraid of the ocean. Some are scared their ships will wreck; others are terrified of the wreckage. To confront his phobia of shipwrecks, our correspondent borrows a rowboat to face New York’s dreadnoughts.

Katie Turner for The Morning News

Early one morning, a couple of friends and I carried a fiberglass rowboat through the open gates of a ship-repair yard on the northwestern edge of Staten Island.

Through the rows of dry-docked tugboats we could see Newark Bay and, about 10 miles to the northeast, Manhattan. We found a steep embankment and slid the boat into the water. Our goal was to explore Shooter’s Island, an abandoned shipyard-cum-wildlife-sanctuary a few hundred yards offshore. My own goal was slightly different. I was there to confront my fear of shipwrecks.

Not just any shipwrecks, though: This is a very particular fear. Ships deep underwater don’t frighten me—I can look at photos of the Titanic all day without popping a single goose bump. But show me a wreck a few feet underwater, or even worse, half-submerged, like those in a ship graveyard, and I shiver uncontrollably. In fact, just about anything man-made that pokes above the water makes my hair stand on end. My stomach tightens and my hands shake. Sometimes, my jaw goes tense and I make an involuntary noise, something like “guh-eessssh.”

I knew from Google Maps that the waters on the western edge of Shooter’s Island were littered with nautical wreckage, fodder for a year’s worth of nightmares: half-sunken ships, collapsed piers, rotting dry docks looming high out of the water like enormous wooden tombstones. If my fear had a local address, it lived somewhere off Shooter’s Island.


Why did I go? Why not just stay at home, on dry land? It’s hard to explain. It’s not as if my fear involves anything unavoidably quotidian, like cats or cars or peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth (that’s arachibutyrophobia, FYI). I didn’t grow up around ships, and despite living in New York, I don’t see them all that often—let alone shipwrecks. With a small amount of effort, I could probably go through life avoiding wrecks completely.

But like sin, phobias have a strange attraction. I think about shipwrecks constantly, unexpectedly and with the prurience of a porn addict. I used to consider it a sign of bravery, that I was confronting my fear by looking at photos of shipwrecks online or visiting abandoned shipyards. But all that did was make my fear stronger—and more irresistible. Maybe it’s just masochism, but without consequence: The suffering leaves no physical trace. It’s all quite a thrill.

Even though I knew a visit to Shooter’s Island would leave me a mess, I’ve been trying to get to a place like it since I first came to New York, in 2002 (I moved away, to Washington, for several years, but the itch never left). There are endless options around this island city: the ship graveyards off Staten Island and in Coney Island Creek, the resort island off Rockaway Beach that sank in the great 1893 hurricane, the rotten stumps of old piers along the West Side of Manhattan. I’ve seen a few from the safety of solid ground, but it wasn’t until this summer that I found someone with a rowboat.

My explorations aren’t only by boat or on foot; I also spend inordinate amounts of time looking up photos of shipwrecks on the Internet. It’s a weird sort of therapy, a kind of neurological Nicorette: I can look all I like from the safety of my couch, and when I can’t take any more, I just turn off my laptop.

I’ve become something of a connoisseur of shipwrecks. One of my favorites is also among the most famous: the Murmansk, a Soviet-era light cruiser off the Norwegian coast. The Russian Navy sold the ship to India in 1994, but while it was being towed past the island of Sørøya, en route around the northern edge of Norway, it ran aground in the shallow edge of a fjord. The Murmansk has sat there ever since, its gun turrets and bridge still above water. There is something ironic about the wreck that sets me on a particularly sharp edge: Meant to be a dangerous naval weapon, it is now a foundered, rusted hulk—yet that is exactly what scares me, much more than it ever could as an active warship.

Another personal hit is the SS America. Built in 1940 as a luxury cruiser, it eventually lost its glamour and was sold off. It passed through a number of owners before ending up in Greece in the early 1990s, having been renamed the American Star. In 1994 it set sail, under tow, for Thailand, where it was supposed to become a floating hotel; instead it ran aground off the Canary Islands. The ship settled just offshore, and in low tide it was practically on the beach, looming over locals and visiting tourists. Over the years it has slowly collapsed under the force of the waves and tides, so that today the ship is barely visible above the waterline. The wreck, particularly in its earlier, more intact days, is imposing: What must it have been like to live on the nearby shore and have the SS America suddenly filling your view, decaying, rusting, dying?

As we rowed, I felt wavelets of panic lap against me; it was almost impossible to look down and not see something in the water—a submerged wooden beam, a scrap of metal, a half-decomposed hull.

Much closer to home—just on the far side of my borough, in fact—is the “Yellow Submarine,” a rusting hulk that sits amid a scrum of derelict barges at the mouth of Coney Island Creek, just south of Calvert Vaux Park. The 45-foot craft was built in the 1960s by Jerry Bianco, a Brooklyn entrepreneur. He planned to use it to raise the Andrea Doria, a cruise ship that sank off Long Island in 1956, reportedly carrying millions of dollars in gold and jewels. The submarine foundered just after it launched, and though he got it floating again, Bianco soon ran out of money and abandoned it. Eventually the sub slipped its mooring and floated, appropriately, to the Coney Island Creek ship graveyard, where it got stuck in the mud. At low tide people row out to it and fish off its deck, and a quick search of Google Images shows folks climbing in its conning tower.

But the trip to Shooter’s Island was my first chance to get close enough to actually touch the objects of my fear. As we rowed around the island, I felt wavelets of panic lap against me; it was almost impossible to look down and not see something in the water—a submerged wooden beam, a scrap of metal, a half-decomposed hull—just below the boat. We rowed past half a barge sitting just offshore; the other half was, well, who knows where?

A few hundred feet offshore sit three enormous wood dry docks, shaped like squared-off U’s. Cormorants and herons have built nests along their high points. They stand steadily in the water, though it’s too murky to see how, if at all, they’re connected to the bottom. We paddled around and in between them, under half-fallen timbers and over barely submerged rusted iron beams attached, somewhere deep below, to the docks. Nearby a wood pier, long since detached from land, slipped sideways into the bay; on top of it, just out of the water, sat a locked metal cage.


Someday I’ll get up the courage to visit the big bad granddaddy of my fears, the USS Arizona, near Honolulu. It’s one of the first shipwrecks I remember learning about, and the first I remember being afraid of. Hit by a Japanese bomb during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Arizona settled in the shallow water off Ford Island, with its deck just a few feet below the surface and its superstructure still towering above the waves. Out of 1,400 men on board, 1,177 died—almost half the total killed in the attack.

The ship burned for two days, and it sat there for a year while the Navy tried to see if it was salvageable. Eventually the parts still above water were taken off and reused, but not before investigators could snap thousands of photos of the semi-submerged wreck. My father owns a big book on Pearl Harbor, and as a child I would flip through its pages, stopping on the horrifying shots of twisted metal rising out of the water, knowing that trapped underneath lay thousands of bodies, many of which were never recovered.

The memorial eventually placed on top of the wreck, a gleaming white hall that sits crosswise over the ship, seems to me like the world’s most perfect monument, a literal bonding of the abstract soul above water with the mortal remains of the ship, and its sailors, below. I’d love to see it in person—when I’m ready.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen