Kayaking among the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

After a week of perfect autumn weather, the mercury plummeted to a bitter 22 degrees. But my goal for the day was to kayak among the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay. And secondary to that was attendance at the dedication of a section of the Potomac River as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Bundled in about seven layers of clothes I headed for Mallows Bay Park (1440 Wilson Landing Road, Nanjemoy, Maryland). And, I certainly wasn’t alone in my intentions that day. With the sun shining, nature lovers and adventurers also got up early and braved the chill.  

SS Accomac

Hundreds made their way to a bluff overlooking Mallows Bay for the dedication ceremony. The event was attended by Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, officials from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and local representatives, as well.

But a highlight of the dedication was the Blessing Ceremony performed by members of the Piscataway Tribe. These indigenous people have been stewards of this land for centuries. It was nice to see them represented.

Mallows Bay Piscataway tribe

Why You Should Visit the Mallows Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Situated on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, the shallow waters of Mallows Bay contain the largest collection of wood and steel-hulled shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of only 14 sites in the country named a National Marine Sanctuary by the NOAA and the first new designee in nearly 20 years. Plus, in 2015 the shipwrecks and the 18 square miles between Mallows Bay and Widewater, VA were named an archaeological and historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kayaking Mallows Bay

The History of the “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay

During World War 1 the US government (United States Shipping Board) created the Emergency Fleet Corporation and commissioned the building of 734 wooden steamships. The vessels were to be built by 40 shipyards in 17 states. They required quick construction using the large timber reserves in the United States. These boats were intended to serve as a merchant fleet. By the end of the war, only 98 ships were built and most were fraught with mechanical failures and construction-related issues.

Following the war, the Shipping Board appointed a committee charged with selling the unfinished and unused vessels.  The Western Marine & Salvage Company in Alexandria, Virginia, purchased the vessels for scrap metal. The company relocated the ships to Widewater on the Virginia side of the Potomac where they remained for two years. At that time, the company moved them across the river to Mallows Bay.

Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet

Shortly thereafter, in 1925, 31 of the ships were burned in what experts consider the greatest destruction of ships at one time in US history. The “Burn Basin” contains the remains of these ships. And the remainder were intentionally sunk or simply left to rot.

Today, Mallows Bay is the final resting place of up to 200 shipwrecks. Their hulls peek out of the waters of the Potomac. The most visible of the vessels is the S.S. Accomac, a steel-hulled ferry used to transport cars and people across the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia before being replaced by the Bay-Bridge Tunnel.

Exploring Mallows Bay Park

Today, nature has reclaimed the remnants of these ships. The wrecks provide shelter for flora and fauna, including fish, osprey, bald eagles, heron, beaver, river otters, and turtles. Plus, the wooded area surrounding the sanctuary contains artifacts dating back 12,000 years including Native American relics.

Mallows Bay Park offers outdoor enthusiasts walking trails, a boat ramp, and a kayak launch. All are available for public use at no cost.

Kayakers and boaters hoping to view the Ghost Fleet should be aware that the waters of Mallows Bay are tidal. This means that during high tide, few of the vessels stand above the water. You will want to time your visit during low tide, so check the tide charts. A visit while the tide is out will give you the best opportunity to observe the greatest number of “Ghost Ships.” Better yet, if you can time it for a foggy morning, I imagine this would make for a haunting sight.

Mallows Bay Park

The best way to see the ghost ships is from the water. Therefore, despite the temperatures being well below freezing the morning of my visit, I was going to risk getting a little wet.  Not wanting to miss this opportunity to see the wrecks up close, I joined a small group in paddling out to the wrecks.  I think by the time we launched the mercury had hit a scorching 40 degrees. It was worth braving the cold.

But landlubbers can also enjoy Mallows Bay Park and the Ghost Fleet. The recreation area offers multiple walking trails of varying distances. All are relatively easy and provide vantage points from which to view the wrecks. While you’re exploring keep your eyes open. You just might find an Indian arrowhead.  

Mallows Bay National Marine Sanctuary

The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and the National Marine Sanctuary is truly awesome. Truth be told; this was my main reason for visiting Charles County. And now that I’ve been there, it would be my top reason to return. But there are plenty of other reasons to visit.  Charles County offers many Civil and Revolutionary War sites as well as Religious Freedom historical spots. And, those who love life on the water can’t go wrong.

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Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet pin

Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

Travel writer/blogger, photographer. Avid potter and wanna-be artist. Wife, Mom to 6 fur kids, gardener, coffee snob.

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