On an especially foggy day back in 1961 a freighter bearing the brazen name "S.S. Dominator" plowed into a peninsula off the coast of Ranchos Palos Verdes. After 2 long days of fruitless attempts to dislodge their ship from the jagged rocks, the entire crew abandoned her, leaving the Dominator to waste away into obscurity. Fast forward to 2016—55 years of pounding ocean waves and oxidizing iron has claimed nearly all of the ship’s hull, leaving just a few scattered pieces of seemingly unidentifiable scrap metal in it's wake. But, we had heard that after an easy mile and a half hike down to the beach we could admire what was left of this ancient ghost ship.
At least that was the idea.
Take it from me, that mile and a half was anything but easy... unless you're a seasoned mountain climber (which I am not). Despite three near death experiences and a dusty bum, if you’re willing to traverse the treacherous sandstone cliffs, only then to walk across the ankle-breaking, unstable, rocky shore, it is absolutely worth the trouble.
When Elise and I were invited to check out the wreck, we were beyond excited. Sadly, my sinister online college course had other ideas of what I should do with my weekend. But you know what they say: if there’s a will, there’s a way! After a series of technical difficulties we set off with the intentions of meeting our group for a day of drawing and photographing the ships skeletal remains. By a hilarious misdirection, we ended up getting there first even though we left at least three hours after our friends. It seems Apple Maps, like my college class, decided to throw off their plans. It lead the group to the wrong section of coastline entirely, causing them to relentlessly search for a shipwreck that was never even there.
This meant that Elise and I—scaredy-cats personified—had to find a way down the vertigo-inducing cliffs on our own. After some nervous wandering, we found some similarly terrified travelers making their way back up. Thankfully, they kindly showed us how to get down with no broken bones. There is a visible path carved out by previous hikers, but it's no regulated state park safety zone, which means no guard rails, steep drop-offs, and nothing but slushy, unstable sandstone for us to climb down. Needless to say, we were caked in dirt before we had even started. Getting down that hill absorbed all of our mental and physical strength and/or hope, but we still had to traverse nearly 2 miles across the rocky shoreline to get to the ship. Lucky for me, that meant thousands of perfect skippin' rocks!
Along the way we made a friend who boosted our spirits immensely. Gus, the seaweed-eating golden retriever was more than ecstatic to meet some visitors as he bathed in the sun while his owner surfed the rough seas. And believe me, we were eager to give him some loving pets before continuing on our long journey ahead.
Once we finally rounded the peninsula's corner, after great anticipation, we immediately knew that this exhausting adventure was worthwhile. 3 large red structures jutted out of the rocks amidst thousands of shards of rusted metal that littered the beach. (Hope you’re up to date on your tetanus shots!) Closer to the ship's hull sat countless gears that once made the ship rumble and roll; now sitting stagnant and quite literally immobile. It's truly surprising how much is left of the ship’s intricacies. If you’re into steampunk, you’ll be especially fascinated by the aesthetic of it all.
The largest and most fascinating fragment left of the ship is what appears to be a large military tank. Surprisingly enough, it's actually not a tank at all, but a mammoth deck gun used defend the ship from enemy submarines and aircrafts during World War II. Unfortunately, it did not protect against sneaky peninsulas.
Sitting there, silently appreciating the wreckage while listening to harsh waves and angry seagulls brought me to another place entirely. A metal monster—once so capable and deadly— decaying in it's grave nearly 60 years post mortem is unfathomable. It is often so hard to conceptualize history, even while you're staring at it.
Of course our trip wasn't perfect. It was cut short so we could make a family BBQ, leaving us to meet with our friends for no more than five minutes on our way out. And I won't soon forget that whole "oh my God I think I'm going to die" feeling in my gut as I lost my footing. But regardless of all the cons, our whole experience was beyond worth it. Finally seeing the remains of the S.S. Dominator paired with the adventurous road to get there was both awe-inspiring and terrifying. I don’t know if I ever had such an awesome yet polarized experience before. Well, we certainly will be returning soon...maybe with some better shoes.
Have you been on the Palos Verdes shipwreck hike? Maybe you've seen some different shipwrecks! Let us know about your shipwreck story in the comments below.