What Happened To Those Google Barges?

The Google barge in San Francisco Bay in 2013. It's since been towed to Stockton, CA, where it sits idle.

The Google barge in San Francisco Bay in 2013. It’s since been towed to Stockton, CA, where it sits idle.

Remember a year ago, when Google-constructed barges popped up in the waters off San Francisco and Portland (the one in Maine)? They were supposed to be floating showrooms, but they never opened and have since been towed away or sold. But what exactly caused Google to scuttle its seafaring plans?

According to the Wall Street Journal, fire-safety concerns from the U.S. Coast Guard ultimately made the costly project not worth seeing through.

“These vessels will have over 5,000 gallons of fuel on the main deck and a substantial amount of combustible material on board,” wrote the Coast Guard’s acting chief of commercial vessel compliance, in a March 27, 2013 e-mail (uncovered via a Freedom of Information Act request) to Google’s barge contractor, Foss Maritime Co.

The Coast Guard and private fire-safety companies provided Foss and Google with a 20-page document detailing everything that would need to be done to make the barges safe for use by the public.

Google had hoped to have around 1,200 people each day visit the barge in San Francisco, telling the Coast Guard that there would be no more than 150 people on board the ship at any given time. But the Coast Guard said these were just numbers.

“I am unaware of any measures you plan to use to actually limit the number of passengers,” wrote the acting chief, who also expressed concern that Google and Foss had done so much work so quickly on these barges “without full consent of the Coast Guard.”

Even after Google gave government officials tours of the San Francisco barge to show what they had done, an Aug. 22, 2013 e-mail from the Coast Guard states that “The vessel’s design doesn’t incorporate certain fire safety features typically required… we cannot determine if evacuation of disabled persons has been considered.”

A few weeks later, Google suspended work on the project. But by this point, the public and media on both coasts were reporting on and speculating about the barges. Privately, all construction had stopped, but Google continued to release statements to the public that it was “still early days” for the project, which the company described to the press as “an interactive space where people can learn about technology.”

While Google was still being coy about the barges, the Coast Guard was internally lamenting the fact that so much had been left to the last minute.

“In hindsight we should have sought legal review earlier,” wrote one Coast Guard captain wrote a group of officers.

In March 2014, the San Francisco barge was towed 80 miles east to Stockton, its current home, while the Main barge was sold, towed to Boston Harbor and dismantled in August.