Updated: Sep 22, 2018
Mallows Bay is a small bay in Maryland on the Potomac River across from Quantico about 40 miles south of Washington, DC.
Mallows Bay boasts a collection of nearly 200 known historic shipwrecks dating back to the Civil War. The area is most known for the remains of more than 100 wooden steamships, known as the Ghost Fleet. These ships were built for the US Emergency Fleet between 1917-1919 as part of America’s engagement in World War I and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Their construction at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states reflected the massive national wartime effort. Most of the ships were never used in the war and were left in the river after the company that owned them went bankrupt.
In October 2015, NOAA announced its intent to designate a new national marine sanctuary to help conserve these nationally significant shipwrecks and related maritime heritage resources along the river. Following a public comment period last year, NOAA has developed a detailed analysis for a proposed national marine sanctuary to protect Mallows Bay. You can see NOAA's proposed options for the sanctuary at this link and also below.
In the tour map and Google Maps aerial image below, you can see how the ships are just all laid out in the area. There is one metal ship (which is in the lower left corner) which is the SS Accomac. The SS Accomac began her career as the steamer Virginia Lee1928. She was purchased by the US Navy for service in World War II and later sold to the Virginia Ferry Corporation in 1951. As a ferry, the ship carried both passengers and vehicles across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay between Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. Ferry service continued until 1964 when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was opened.
The known ships have marker buoys with numbers identifying them. The numbers correspond with the tour map and the accompanying description on the tour guide. (Clicking on this link will take you to a PDF of the full paddling guide.)
It's about a quarter of a mile from the boat launch to the Accomac which is the first ship on the tour. It was very calm when I first started out. I think that the launch is in a very protected location. As out go out to the edge of where the shipwrecks are, the wind and wave action picked up considerably, but I was still able to get around okay.
As I paddled around to the north and got closer to the shoreline. the water was THICK with an aquatic plant named hydrilla. It's a non-native, invasive species and it appears to have completely taken over the area in places, so much so that I couldn't paddle close to the shore. I'm guessing that it's not as thick in the spring.
It's amazing that all these ships were abandoned here. Apparently, the salvage company that owned a lot of them, salvaged (or attempted to salvage) the metal from some of the ships by setting them on fire in the basin near the boat launch.
Most of the ships that are in the bay are only exposed a little bit above the water line. I paddled at low tide and as you can see, on some of the ships, only a few pieces are exposed. You definitely need to be careful paddling in some area. The water was super clear in most of the bay, so seeing the submerged ships was easy.
As for the wooden ships themselves, you can see in my pictures that trees and other vegetation have taken over several of the hulls making the area into a nature habit in addition to being a marine sanctuary. There were lots and lots of birds taking out residence on the ships and surrounding area.
It's a pretty amazing place.