Get (Momentarily) Lost in The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, Charles Co., MD
Have you ever wanted to explore old sunken ships but can’t make it to one of the tropical destinations where they seem to prefer to become sunken, or run aground, and turned into artificial reefs for fish and other underwater friends? Yeah, me too. Guess what? You can do this in Maryland, on the Potomac river. And it’s as awesome as it might sound.
The Potomac Rivers cuts right through Charles County, Maryland which is separated from nearby Virginia by the river itself. Once you arrive in the county run to Mallows Bays Park. There you can get your first glimpse of several ship-like silhouettes only a couple thousand feet from the parking lot. Hundreds of WWI merchant ships that you can paddle around? Sign me up.
With the help of nearby kayaking tour company, Atlantic Kayak Company, the crew and I were ready to paddle. The company’s owner, Kim DeMarr, was our guide, which worked out pretty great as before buying the company in 2018, she worked for the previous owner and was filled with far more knowledge than any internet search could ever muster.
As we paddled our kayaks out into a slight headwind, Kim began to point out history laying under the tideline. As she explained, the most noticeable ship from the shore is the SS Accomac, a car ferry used to transport people and cars across the Chesapeake Bay from the Virginia Beach area prior to the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. It was later sailed up river sometime in the 1980’s and run aground with zero worries of legal consequence due to a now outdated gray area in the laws that allowed scuttling of ships along the Potomac. Yeah, you could once do that without repercussion– weird right?
Kim pointed out that even more history lies along the shores as some ships dating back as far as the Revolutionary War are visible only during the lowest of low tides.
Once close to the SS Accomac, you can start to see how nature has completely reclaimed all the ships. The SS Accomac, besides clear signs of illegal metal salvaging, is slowly rusting away, returning to the river floor. Atop what is left of her deck, birds of prey like the osprey have built nests high above the water, taking advantage of the densely wildlife rich environment below that all the wooden ships have created from their nearly 100 year long residency. As much as you’d think the the more modern ship would take away from the century old merchant ships that primarily dominate the bay, it fits right in inside this strange collection of history.
We began to paddle towards the main channel of the River, this is where you can truly take in the full spectacle of the WWI Ghost Fleet. Amid the choppy waters are literally hundreds of wooden ships, several ships that still resemble something that at one time was intended to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in wartime. Other ships sneak up on you as their wood has succumbed to the water, leaving mostly skeletons made of metal rivets that continue to fight a losing battle only slightly slower than wood. Again, our guide Kim proves to be the most welcomed asset to our trip as she not only identifies ships that can be named, but also shared details of the bizarre inferior workmanship that plagued the Ghost Fleet from the start.
By this point, we haven’t even traveled a mile in the murky waters but it’s clear you could spend hours, if not days weaving your way through all the disregarded pieces of American history and never find an end of finding something new and interesting to see.
Our time was running short, but we had enough time to explore “three sisters cove,” a sheltered cove on the northern end of the bay created by 3 ships that were still able to move and shift in their first few years of living in the bay before finally settling in a perfectly guarded triangle shaped haven. Inside the cove, one of the ships have been completely claimed by beavers, housing their dams inside the coves calm waters. The beavers even cut clever little “channels” that span across the ships hull to save on having to go all the way around to the main entrance to get back to their dams. It just made me even more curious to what other surprises are waiting among the rubble and ships.
As the crew and I paddled back to shore, osprey, blue herrings and Bald Eagles soared above us like some naturally occurring patriot product placement, I’d like to think this place is pretty rare since most shipwrecks are found off the coast in salt water and often only accessible by longer boat rides. In the age of social media, where nearly perfectly documented adventures in often times breathtaking yet remote or exotic destinations show elite adventurers being, well, elite. I’m reminded that I don’t need to go through all the troubles of global travel or permit lotteries to find my sense of adventure. Mallows Bay, I feel, hit that mark. It is a family friendly spot where you can drive right up and after a short paddle, you’re among giants of history. If that isn’t an epic insta-worthy adventure, then I don’t know what is.