Explore the Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet, a Ship Graveyard
Filled with history, this sunken fleet about 30 miles down the Potomac from D.C. is now an ecological paradise.
The first time I found myself among the ghosts, I was alone. And I was afraid.
Four years ago, on a summer morning that was already muggy before the sun rose, I headed south from Washington, D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac River with my paddleboard strapped to the roof of my car. In less than an hour I was on two-lane roads, driving under lush canopies of trees. Near the quiet town of Nanjemoy, I parked at Mallows Bay. My friend Chris, a sailor and Chesapeake Bay aficionado, had been encouraging me to check out this spot for years because of its fascinating history. I finally decided to visit for my annual birthday paddle and was perfectly content to find that I was the only one celebrating.
A park ranger handed me a waterproof map. “Don’t get too close to the ships,” she cautioned. “There’s a lot of rusty metal out there.” On the dock, I looked toward the quiet bay, sparkling in the early morning sun. The ranger appeared behind me. “Do you have a whistle?” I nodded, apprehensively. “Three times means you need help.”
Once on the water, I unfolded the map and cruised out to the first of 16 naval attractions, the Accomac, a massive World War II ship later repurposed as a ferry and the only Mallows vessel that rises high enough above the water to still look like a boat. I paddled around it easily, but as I followed the route to other points on the map—sunken ships known as the Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet—I quickly understood why the ranger had warned me about getting too close.
Weathered wooden planks and twisted metal rods poked out of the water at peculiar angles, sometimes dripping with vegetation or sprouting trees—steampunk-like creations rising from the depths. As I skirted the edges of these ships, my imagination ran wild about what might loom underwater. Each time my paddleboard fin tapped a hard object, the bump threw me off balance and I teetered on my board. I pictured myself toppling into an abyss of jagged, rusty metal remnants and wondered if I was up to date on my tetanus shot.
Slowing to a crawl, I kneeled on my board, carefully maneuvering between ship debris. (Only later did I notice a note on the waterproof map discouraging exploration by inflatable vessels or SUPs.) Eventually I paddled off the mapped route and into the open water of the Potomac. Just north of the bay I spied a great blue heron, its neck curved like an S-hook. A poky turtle moved along an old piece of wood, and dragonflies danced on the surface of the water.
Once out of harm’s way, I was struck by the ethereal beauty of these burial grounds. Exiting the water, I passed a group of kayakers about to begin a tour. I vowed to return for another visit—next time without a fin.
Mallows Bay, about 30 miles down the Potomac from D.C., is best known as a graveyard for wooden ships from World War I. These remains have created extraordinary habitats—some call them “floating forests”—for plants and animals. In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated the area as Maryland’s first national marine sanctuary, jointly managed by NOAA, the state of Maryland and Charles County.
This graveyard isn’t the only home to ghost ships in the mid-Atlantic. You can also see them at Kiptopeke State Park and Fort Eustis, both in Virginia. But Mallows is home to the largest fleet of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere, more than 100 vessels. And nothing beats seeing them by kayak.
Eager to return, I persuaded a group of friends to play hooky from work on a Friday last August. We met near the bay, signed waivers, slathered on sunscreen and gathered around Joe and Shellie Perrie, the owners of Atlantic Kayak Co. and our guides for the morning.
Joe displayed a laminated map on his easel. “This little divot is Mallows Bay,” he said, pointing to the eastern side of the Potomac. He explained that most of the sunken ships here were constructed between 1917 and 1918 as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s aggressive plan to build 1,000 wooden ships for World War I.
The steam-powered vessels were built at what we’d today call “pop-up” shipyards across the country, but the war ended before any of them made it to Europe.
In the following years, metal parts, including engines and propellers, were sold for scrap and the wooden shells were brought to Mallows Bay, packed in like pickles and burned to the waterline. What lingers are the remains of about 100 steamers from that era as well as some more modern barges, ferries and military craft.
After a safety briefing (and a reminder to please interrupt if anyone saw a bald eagle), Joe and Shellie led us down to the dock and we paired off in tandem kayaks. Scooting our boats into the water, we pretty quickly found our paddles catching clumps of what looked like green spaghetti, which I’ve been told is beautiful underwater. Shellie explained that SAV—“submerged aquatic vegetation” such as celery root and hydrilla—filters the water, which is good, but makes it harder to paddle at certain times of the year, not so good.
Leading us back to a narrow part of the bay, Shellie talked about edible plants and the Indigenous peoples who once lived here. One of the first ships we encountered was the S.S. Boone, bits of which were exposed under bushes and shrubs. I looked at the remains of this once impressive vessel: It was launched in 1918 before 3,000 spectators and sold for scrap in 1922.
We all inched forward, single file. “This is creepy,” I said, looking over the side of my kayak at the ship frame and imagining the rest of it underneath. Long metal pins stuck out every which way, like dinosaur ribs that had gone through a washing machine.
“It’s like Scooby-Doo,” my friend Scott called out, and several of us laughed about Scooby always finding himself in spooky places.
At the next sunken ship, Shellie explained that when we see vegetation or what looks like a small island, that’s a ship underneath. Over time, silt and sand have filled in the hulls, creating giant flowerpots. “Birds drop seeds on the silt, and those turn into bushes and trees and provide ecologically valuable habitats,” she said, noting that the remains of the ship—both above water and below—provide unique structures to host birds, beavers, turtles and fish. Those habitats have helped convert Mallows Bay from a naval dump to an ecological paradise.
Every so often, a paddler called, “Bald eagle!” We passed another half-dozen ships and Joe pointed out ospreys that nest on the Accomac, where visitors often see chicks in the spring. As we neared the dock after a couple hours on the water, a helicopter flew overhead. “Another osprey,” someone called out. We looked up at the V-22 Osprey and chuckled. Marine Corps Base Quantico was just across the river.
Back on solid ground, we ambled back to our cars and spoke excitedly about the postapocalyptic display we’d toured. How nice it felt to be with friends, in nature, on a workday. We might as well have been a group of kids on an unchaperoned field trip.
Conversation soon shifted, but the ghosts remained with me. I thought of all the effort that went into building these ships and wondered what we humans are doing today that might intrigue kayakers a century from now.
I brushed some SAV off my dry bag, reached in for the last quarter of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, hopped into the car with my friend and headed home.
If You Go
Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary
1440 Wilson Landing Road, Nanjemoy, Maryland
Atlantic Kayak Co. offers 2.5-hour tours ($80) through October, generally on Friday and Saturday mornings and afternoons, ages 8 and older, no experience necessary. Charles County offers tours (through Atlantic Kayak) on Sundays ($60-$80). REI offers 3.5 -hour tours; member price is $120. The sanctuary is open from 5:30 a.m. to dusk year-round; wrecks are best viewed at low tide.
Paddle to Pedal
Charles County, Maryland, is also a prime spot for cyclists. A few months after our paddle, I gathered some of the same friends to return to the area for a bike ride along the Indian Head Rail Trail, a scenic 13-mile flat asphalt path connecting Indian Head to White Plains. On our round-trip ride, we passed Mattawoman Creek, spied several species of birds and stopped at one point for a large, prehistoric-looking turtle blocking our path.
At the Indian Head terminus, you’re close to Clarity Coffee House and OBO Pizza. If you’re looking for lodging, try Pentagon Suites, a few minutes’ bike from the trailhead (bring your earplugs; it’s next to the fire department) or camp at Smallwood State Park, which was closed for construction when we visited, but set to reopen this year. At the White Plains terminus, get caffeinated at Wee Bean Coffee and treat yourself to a cone or cup at Landon’s Ices and Creams.
Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She is always looking for a new place to take her paddleboard—with plenty of clearance for the fin. Find her at melaniedgkaplan.com.