Did Instagram photo lead to destruction of west Marin shipwreck?

A San Jose photographer who has become the target of social media backlash says he’s not to blame for a fire that destroyed a popular shipwreck behind the Inverness Market.|


For decades it beckoned painters and photographers, picnickers and partiers. Now, an iconic shipwreck on Tomales Bay has become a flashpoint in an emotional online battle over social-media mores.

The beached wooden boat behind the market in the west Marin County town of Inverness caught fire early Monday, apparently after a time-lapse photo session involving burning pieces of steel wool.

Flames spared the bow and cabin but scorched the stern of the boat, called the Point Reyes, leaving the structure unstable. Authorities said the wreck now may be removed to prevent anyone who climbs on it from being injured.

Locals were furious such an act could ruin the landmark, which has been allowed to weather in the mud behind Inverness Market for more than two decades. The boat’s graffiti-filled interior betrays its status as a popular beach hangout after dark.

People lashed out in cafes at nearby Point Reyes Station and on social media, some demanding punishment for those responsible.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Ashley Arnold, 23, of Inverness as she served up croissants at Bovine Bakery on Thursday. “It’s been there since before I was born.”

The Facebook page West Marin Feed burned with criticism for the San Jose-based photographer who posted a picture of the boat on Instagram with streaks of fire encircling it. Many believe he staged the shot and is responsible for the fire, although he denies it.

“I’m guessing some of the entitled people just felt it was OK to create art,” commenter Kim Daniels said. “Sadness at the overwhelming influx of pure unabashed arrogance flooding West Marin.”

The photographer, James Stewart, said he was taking pictures of the night sky Saturday when a group of “kids” converged on the boat. They appeared to be lighting steel wool and spinning it in the air in a technique popular at Burning Man known as light painting.

Stewart, who maintains he was not involved, packed up to leave but used his cellphone to trigger a picture before driving away. He posted it on Instagram using his account, Imonlyjames. He learned the next day the boat burned and he was being blamed for it.

He took the picture down at the request of a commenter who said it reminded her of her father. People have since threatened him saying he destroyed the beloved vessel, he said.

“I’m not getting credit for the picture, but I’m definitely getting credit for the fire,” Stewart said.

Fire officials have yet to say who is responsible. They were called out about 1 a.m. Monday to find the boat engulfed in flames.

Scott McMorrow, general manager of the Inverness Public Utilities District, said the cause appears to be of human origin. He said it’s possible a spark from Saturday night landed on the boat’s damp wood and smoldered for more than a day before catching fire.

Because the boat is on federal land, the National Park Service will have to figure out what to do with it.

“It poses a hazard for sure,” McMorrow said. “Before the fire, you could get into it and walk around on it. You might catch a splinter. But now you could probably fall through the deck.”

Ranger John Golda of the Point Reyes National Seashore said Thursday an investigation is ongoing and no decision has been made about what to do with the boat.

The incident comes at a time when taking photos for social media is experiencing a bit of a backlash. Earlier this month, a baby dolphin was left to die after being handled by throngs of tourists in Argentina who pulled it from the water to take selfies with it. Days later, a Florida surfer ripped a shark from the water and posed with it on the sand in Palm Beach for video and photos posted on social media. The shark was thrown back in the water, but it was unclear if it survived.

Outside Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes Station on Thursday, locals contemplated technology that encourages people to take their own photos while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge.

They expressed sadness that the same behavior defaced Inverness’s iconic wreck.

“I feel like it’s the era we live in,” said Peter Cohen, an Inverness doctor who stopped for a snack. “Everybody is bent over smartphones.”

Sally Hutchinson, a retired teacher, also from Inverness, sat nearby, sipping a hot drink. She said it’s not so much a commentary on technology but on the “ridiculous behavior of people.”

“I’ll be really sad when something so entrenched and local is drug away,” Hutchinson said. “Shame on them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.