Mallows Bay, Potomac River, Nanjemoy, MD


Ferry Ghost Ship

We paddled Mallows Bay where there are lots of “Ghost Ships”.  You can read about the Ghost Fleet here and here.  Essentially there are more than 150 vintage World War I wooden ships which were abandoned in Mallows Bay.  Almost 100 years later, we can still see what is left of the fleet at low tide.

We actually went to the Ghost Ship area of Mallows Bay, and then we paddled upstream to where there is a point along the shore and spent time playing with water guns and wading. There are safety considerations for both parts of this trip and I will address them separately.



Mallows Bay

This is my first time visiting this place.  I heard from my friend, Mark, that when paddling here, you need to take into consideration both tides and how recently and how much it has rained in the area.  (And by “area”, I mean the drainage area of the Potomac River.) We checked the Tidal Chart.  On the day we went, the low tide was at 9:04 am and the high tide at 3:31 pm.  This tide chart shows both the times of the low and high tides, and if you look at the bottom of the chart, you can see how low and high the tides will be on a particular day.   On our particular day, the morning low tide was 4/10 of a foot higher than zero level.   It had not rained in a week or more so there was no extra water that would be contributing to making the water level higher.  And water levels on the Potomac are usually low in the Summer.  I only know the gauge readings for Little Falls, which is a gauge much higher up in the watershed, but I checked (after the fact) and the reading was 3.07 which is normal low for this time of year. That told me (as I had presumed) that there was not extra water coming in from higher up in the watershed which might raise the levels down here.

Of course it would have been best if we could have arrived before low tide, but since we were traveling from 1.5 hours away, we decided on an arrival time of 10:00 am, one hour after low tide.  After unloading canoes and getting stuff ready, we did not launch until 10:30 am.

Boat Launch

Mallows Bay Boat Launch

Mallows Bay Boat Launch

The boat launch at Mallows Bay Park is huge. It has both a concrete canoe and motor boat launch and a separate kayak launch on a floating dock.  You drive down to unload your boat and then drive back to the top of the hill for parking.   There is parking for more than 30 cars and places for cars which are towing trailered boats.  Mallows Bay Park is open 5:30 am until dusk.  There are port-a-potties in the parking lot.

Ghost Ships

Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship

The launch is on a inlet, which is much calmer than Mallows Bay.  From the inlet you can see the remains of a large Ferry ship, (according to a volunteer at the park).  There is as osprey nest on the boat and we were told not to paddle too close as the osprey would be angry (read fly toward you) if you go too close.  So probably the osprey were nesting.   In the inlet is the remains of a PT boat (again according to the volunteer).

We paddled toward the ferry and paddled around to see it but did not get too close.  This ferry is outside of the part of Mallows Bay which is the Ghost Fleet area.  The Ghost Fleet is surrounded by pilings.  It takes less than 10 minutes to paddle from the boat launch to the pilings and the start of the Ghost Fleet.

Paddling Safety in the Ghost Fleet

Steel bars sticking up all around.

Steel bars sticking up all around.

We were in two canoes.  My husband and I paddled in separate canoes so that we would have at least one experienced paddler in each canoe.  We each took the back of the canoes (the stern).   I had an inexperienced adult in my bow (front) and my husband had a 9 year old in the bow and an 8 year old in the middle, and they only occasionally paddled.  But mostly he was on his own.  Even if we had had one more adult to make this an easier paddle, we would still have split up the experienced paddlers so that there was one experienced paddler in each canoe.

When we got to the Ghost Fleet, it was already more than 1.5 hours after low tide and the tide was coming in.  There were still lots of boat hulls visible from the surface.  But much of what there is to see is still underwater.  What is left of these boats is some wood but mostly lots of huge steel bars that held the boats together.  These steel bars, both under and on top of the water are a huge safety risk.  The last thing you want to do is get out of the boat, or fall over in the area.  The waves coming in were both from the tide but also occasionally from the wake of motor boats.  Mallows Bay is what I call open water, even if it is somewhat protected in the bay.  It would be easy to get broached against the ghost ships if you get stuck being pushed into the steel bars, which I will call rebars, but are actually some sort of bolt or rivet to keep the boats together.  So because of these dangerous rebars sticking out of the water, it is important to look at the underwater ships from the down tide side of the boat.  I’m not sure if that is a word, but you want to have the tide pushing you away from the rebars, not into the rebars.

For this part of our trip, I think you need to be at least an intermediate canoeist to do it safely.  If you have a hard time controlling the canoe and steering it, it will be a pretty difficult and potentially dangerous paddle at low tide.  At higher tide, where there are not so many rebars sticking out of the the water, it will not be as dangerous.

For kayaks, it will be easier all around to do this paddle in kayaks because you have less likelihood of being tipped over by waves. If you do this paddle without many canoe or kayak skills, you would be safer staying out of the area between the boats where you could get pushed into rebars.

Paddling on to the Point


Paddling to the point, cliffs in the background

We paddled past the Ghost Ships to the point (north). We were paddling with the tide on the way out so it didn’t take too much effort to paddle up to the point, but knowing it would take a lot of effort to paddle back against the tide and the wind and waves.

There are some steep cliffs before you get to the point, which we avoided.  There was a small beach to land on which was covered with drift wood at the high tide mark.  But there was a place for the kids to play in the water, floating in their life vests and squirting their squirt guns.  We had lunch on the beach and made sure to pull the boats pretty far onto shore as the tide was continuing to come in.

Safety of Paddling to and from the Point

Playing at the Point

Playing at the Point

This was one tough paddle coming back from the point.  We had to paddle in open water with waves and wind.  Remember at this point we were paddling against the tide.  I think to do this in a canoe, one should be a strong intermediate paddler and have some experience with open water.  It would be considerably easier to do it in a kayak, plus you wouldn’t have as much chance of going over and being swamped by waves.  It took all of our strength and skill to make it back to the more protected Ghost Ship area.  We needed to keep far enough away from shore so we didn’t get washed into shore. But we needed to keep our boat turned 45 degrees to the waves to avoid being drenched.  Head on the boat takes on more water.  If our boats had been turned parallel to the waves, this would have easily caused us to go over.  So you need a real understanding of this and the skills to paddle keeping your boat angled to the waves yet still making forward progress. And I am no expert in open water paddling.  This is probably my third or fourth time doing it.

Back to the Ghost Fleet and Paddling to the PT Boat

Once we made it back to the Ghost Fleet, the paddling became easier.  It was noticeable how much the tide had come in since we had been gone and how more of the boats were covered with water.  We paddled back to the boat launch and past it in the inlet to where the volunteer said there was a sunk PT boat.  We paddled up to the PT boat, looked around and called it a day.

Fun Quotient

I originally invited several families to go with us and many who were interested could not go the date and time I was leading this trip.  I thought I would do it again for the other families, but in talking with my husband, he thinks the fun quotient was just not there for the kids.  There were limited opportunities for playing due to the wind and waves, while on the water.  The place where the kids did play was way at the end of Mallows Bay, where it was difficult to get back from and took a certain amount of skill to paddle.

There is one other place we stopped, where we saw some kayaks taking a break on a sand bar (or maybe it was a sand bar on a sunken ship).  But this location was small and there were rebars in the water close by, making it a very small place to play and another possibility to get hurt on all of the metal in the water.   So maybe in a few years, we will try again, for now there are other places to explore which don’t have the danger or metal spikes all around and have more safe places to have fun.

Post Paddling Refreshment

We hate to pass B&J Carryout in Accokeek without stopping.  All year they are open with burgers and BBQ.  But April until November there is a separate window open for ice cream. It is that seasonal window we used on this trip.

There is information about refreshments at the end of the Mattawoman Creek Trip Report. These are the same places to go when paddling Mallows Bay

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