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Itinerary:

The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay

Located 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. on the Maryland side of the Potomac River lies one of the most unique paddling experiences in America. The “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay” is the largest collection of visible historic shipwrecks in the western hemisphere, which you can see when you launch from Mallows Bay Park. There are over 100 wooden and steel-hulled ships dating from the 18th century through the mid-20th century, with nearly 90 belonging to the United States Shipping Board’s World War I Emergency Fleet of wooden steamship.

The Mallows Bay region of the Potomac River has been nominated for designation as a National Marine Sanctuary. Many of these unique sites are evolving into veritable islands, artificial habitats for birds, animals and fish of all kinds.

Paddling Notes

  • Paddlers of all skill levels can explore within the main embayment area on the inland route and in the “Burning Basin” area. An intermediate skill level/open water experience is recommended for the exterior route and the Sandy Point route. Wave activity can occasionally make these routes extremely difficult.
  • Local outfitter Atlantic Kayak Company provides guided kayak tours of Mallows Bay on Sundays through October.
  • Consult tide tables before visiting, as the vessels are best seen at low tide.
  • It’s recommended that paddlers stick to trails within and on the perimeter of the main Mallows Bay embayment in the spring and fall, when the foliage is changing. During the summer, the bay is often difficult to paddle through due to the pervasive growth of hydrilla.
  • The vessels are quite fragile and can be dangerous to paddle over. Many vessel sites have become animal habitat or rookeries for birds and should be viewed from a distance to avoid disturbance. Do not attempt to enter or board any vessel.
  • Do not smoke on or near any of the vessel remains, even though they may appear to be wet. Fire and wooden ships do not mix.
  • State and federal law prohibit removal of artifacts of any kind.

Navigational Hazards

  • When leaving the launch area to follow the inner passage, be aware of submerged obstructions and free-floating timbers and logs that occasionally break free from the wrecks and the shoreline. Soon after passing through the piling line, a ship debris pile (often invisible at high water) lies adjacent to the inner passage route.
  • To avoid damage to your canoe or kayak, please follow the prescribed tour routes. Always keep an eye out for semi-submerged debris.
  • Most exposed vessel sites lying between Sandy Point and Liverpool Point are fragile. Because of the many pieces of wood and jagged iron that protrude from them, they can be dangerous to paddle over.
  • It is dangerous to traverse the central wreck cluster in Mallows Bay itself, especially during high tide when ship remains lie just below the waterline. Proceed with caution when traversing the perimeter route of the main wreck cluster, as the sterns of many vessels project seaward underwater and may not be seen.
  • Do not attempt to enter or board the great steel hulk of the Accomac, which is rapidly disintegrating. Stay to the outside of the visible rudder post on the river side of the wreck.
  • It’s recommended that paddlers land at Grady’s Spit on the beach on the west side of the spit on the perimeter route/outer passage, and on the southern tip of the spit when following the inner route. The beach is usually covered with debris from driftwood and iron.
  • The shoreline between the northern end of Mallows Bay (from Grady’s Spit to the southern end of Sandy Point) is largely without obstructions. However, a submerged barge, wharf pilings, and several other unidentified obstructions project from the shoreline midway along the Sandy Point beach and to the south of the “Sentinel Wreck,” a wooden ship anchored to the shoreline by cable lines.
  • From late June-September, Mallows Bay is heavily infested with hydrilla, an invasive floating vegetation, which makes paddling on the inner route difficult.

Water Safety

Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Water trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate rivers. The National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of water trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials. Learn more about water safety.

Marine Forecast

We STRONGLY suggested that you review the marine forecast ahead of heading out for a paddling trip. To review the forecast for this paddle trip, visit:

Emergency Information

In the event of an emergency, call 911.

Nanjemoy Volunteer Fire Department
4260 Port Tobacco Rd.
Nanjemoy MD, 20662
Emergency Dial: 911
Non-Emergency phone: (301) 246-4322
Station Fax: 301) 743-2151
E-mail: info@nvfdco4.com

Charles County EMS
10425 Audie Lane
La Plata, MD, 20646
Emergency Phone: (301) 609-4160
Non-Emergency Phone (301) 609-3430

University of Maryland Regional Medical Center
5 Garrett Avenue
La Plata, MD 20646-1070
Emergency Phone: (301) 609-4160
Non-Emergency Phone: (301) 609-4000.

Parking & Shuttles

There is public parking at Mallows Bay Park for more than 30 vehicles, including boat trailers. The park, which is open from 5:30 a.m. to dusk, does not permit overnight parking. There are no public shuttles to Mallows Bay except by charter.

Restrooms

Yes. There are two portable bathrooms adjacent to the public parking area.

Equipment

  • ALWAYS wear a properly secured personal flotation device (PFD) when participating in paddlesport activities. Make sure that your PFD has a readily accessible safety whistle.
  • Bring a paddle float and water pump for self rescue.
  • A spray skirt is recommended for cold/foul weather.
  • Wear appropriate protective clothing that shields you from the sun (sunglasses, sunblock, hat, and a long-sleeved shirt that can get wet) and is safe to swim in. Water shoes with closed toes will protect you from abrasive hazards at launch areas that can cut your feet.
  • Bring water in bottles than can be secured to your craft. Bring more water than you think you’ll need and drink regularly throughout your journey.

Outfitters

Camping & Ammenities

There are no camping facilities or rest stops within the area.

Trail History

Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT

  • Captain John Smith and his crew spent approximately one month exploring the Potomac, guiding their craft as far up the river as was navigable. During his journey upriver, on June 19, 1608, he met Nussamek, the werowance of the Algonquian speaking Nanjemoy chiefdom between Mallows Bay and Sandy Point, and Smith from there proceeded on to the village of Pamacocack, on Mattawoman Creek.

Potomac Heritage NST

  • On July 22, 1776 near Sandy Point, above Mallows Bay, small boats belonging to the Virginia State Navy, alongside units of Charles County militiamen, defended themselves against warships commanded by Captain Andrew Snape Hammond of the British Navy.  
  • With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union feared a Confederate invasion of Southern Maryland. To obstruct this, Union general Daniel Sickles encamped thousands of men from New York behind strong artillery batteries  along the coast, from Sandy Point southward to Liverpool Point. In 1862 the Union erected a steamboat wharf at Liverpool Point to facilitate raids on Quantico, VA and Aquia Creek.
  • During World War I, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, directed by the U.S. Shipping Board, both to replace American ships which had been lost to Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and to keep up with America’s seaborne transportation needs, organized seventy-five shipyards in sixteen states to make far more ships than really should have been necessary. 
  • After the war, the Western Marine and Salvage Corporation transferred at least 200 wooden steamships from Widewater, Virginia to Mallows Bay. The glut of ships anchored uselessly in Mallows Bay led people to refer to the wasteful affair as "the great 1920 tie-up".  The government worked hard to get rid of these ships, which were costing taxpayers money to maintain; for example, on November 7, 1931, the federal government ordered 31 vessels to be burned in Mallows Bay, burning more ships at once than anyone in history had ever done up to that time.
  • After the Great Depression left millions of people unemployed, "wildcat" scrap salvagers descended upon the ruined vessels of Mallows Bay, searching for metals to sell on the open market. Later on, at the onset of World War II, the federal government decided that the 20,000 tons of scrap metal remaining in Mallows Bay would still be of use to the war effort, so they contacted the Bethelehem Steel Corporation to salvage it. The Bethelehem Steel Corporation melted down over 100 derelict ships at their "Burning Basin" at the entrance to Marlow [Mallows] Creek. 
  • Following World War II, despite several efforts to spur commercial and industrial development along its shores, the remains of the several great shipbreaking efforts from 1922 to 1945, as well as the remains of the great World War I shipbuilding program, remain. Many of the ships, mired in the sediments that have held them for nearly a century, have become islands, self-contained-eco-systems, with mini-forests and vegetation, and life of all forms, occupying their remains and the waters surrounding them.

Weather

Main image: Chesapeake Bay Partnership