It’s a sunny morning in August and Mallows Bay is far from spooky. My group of 18 paddlers is eager to explore the new Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary in Charles County, Maryland. The 18-square-mile site, designated in July, is home to what’s known as the “ghost fleet” - the wrecks of more than 100 ships, the oldest of which date to the 18th century. Someone shouts, and we look up.
"Cue the eagle," my husband, Pete, says. Bald eagles, ospreys, herons and all manner of winged creatures abound in this ship graveyard just 30 miles downstream of Washington, D.C.
The majority of the wrecks in Mallows Bay are wooden steamships built for World War I. "It's the single largest homogenous collection of ships in the world," Susan Langley, the state underwater archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust, told me in a phone interview. "It's a weird selection, but they all have stories to tell."
And once you know the stories, this place inspires philosophical thoughts. As our double kayaks set out at low tide - the best time to see the remains - I'm reminded of those human conflicts English teachers drilled into me: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature. Mallows Bay showcases them all.
In 1917, the United States' Allies needed supplies. President Woodrow Wilson issued a call to build ships, and the Emergency Fleet Corp. answered. It set the lofty goal of building 1,000 wooden steamships in 18 months. Too lofty, as it turned out - only 264 were completed, at 40 shipyards that sprang up across 17 states.
"They were being built - to be honest - to be expendable, so there'd be enough of them that the U-boats couldn't get them all," Langley explained.
Pieces of wood and metal protrude from the brackish water as we follow our Atlantic Kayak Co. guides, Jeremy Martinez and Kathy Fuller, toward the remains of the S.S. Boone. It is now a ship-shaped island with vegetation happily sprouting from its gut. Martinez shares the words once inscribed on its bow: "Here's to the steamer Boone, the best new ship afloat. Across the sea she is doomed to get the Kaiser's goat."
Low tide exposes artifacts like the Boone in these four- to five-foot depths, but it also leaves paddlers at the mercy of hydrilla, an invasive aquatic vegetation that abounds in late summer. Paddle shallowly, Martinez advises; still, strands of hydrilla hang from my paddle. On the plus side, I'm getting a workout.
A red dragonfly lands on my paddle. Red? I've never seen one! Eye-catching red and blue dragonflies - and damselflies - whiz about us with a bonus: They devour mosquitoes, which keeps the bloodsuckers in check.
My eyes dance from pieces of metal strapping to yellow swallowtails amid the ecosystems that sprout from sediment-filled remains. "Flowerpot wrecks," they're called. Nature has transformed some of the vessels into a thriving reef that helps stabilize the shoreline. I can't help smiling.
Technological progress - diesel engines, mainly - left these coal-powered ships in the dust, and storing them was expensive. In 1922, 233 of the vessels were sold to a salvage company for $750,000, once the price tag for constructing a single ship.
Initially, the company - the Western Marine & Salvage Co. - stored them in Widewater, Virginia, and towed them to Alexandria to dismantle. However, they often broke loose, sank, or blocked channels or fishing grounds, causing a local outcry. In 1924, the company bought the farmland around Mallows Bay and warehoused about 140 of the ships in the bay.
At the S.S. Afraina, Martinez points to the spot where the ship's giant propeller once was. We paddle by rows of metal pins that lined its interior. Farther along, we admire the double-hull construction of one ship and observe burn marks on another. The vessels were often burned to the waterline for both disposal and easier access to salvageable parts.
Surely, the 10 torch-bearing men who sprinted from one oil-soaked, 60-foot-tall deck to another while setting the 31 lashed-together ships alight (1925 was pre-Occupational Safety and Health Administration, pre-power-tool times, Martinez reminds) felt inner conflict. A veritable army of rats jumped ship then, too. During the Depression, the market for scrap metal fell, and the salvage company failed, leaving these stranded behemoths to the locals.
As I peer into the clear water, I wish for polarized lenses to better observe the underwater forest. Bass, catfish, snakes and a throng of tiny creatures dart among the ships' decayed remains.
"That habitat is critical for a lot of juvenile fish species we care about in the Bay," said Kim Grubert, a scientist in Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, in a phone interview. "If you can imagine what's going on under the water's surface, it's even more magical."
"Eagle!" someone cries as we paddle single-file into what our guides call the "secret cove," a secluded spot created by verdant vessels. Inside, we note a sturdy beaver lodge in one wreck.
We owe much of our knowledge of the ghost fleet to Don Shomette, an author, historian and marine archaeologist who pored through archives and combed the wrecks themselves to flesh out the site's history.
He first heard the moniker as a boy. After a night of camping on the shore with his father and brother, Shomette told me in a phone call, their boat was heading down the river through a heavy fog when they ran into an old waterman.
"You boys going to see the ghost fleet?" the waterman asked.
Minutes later, their boat came up "under the bow of a ship that loomed out of the gloom," Shomette said. (The ships were more emergent then.) He's been going to see them ever since.
After hugging the shore, we paddle into choppier waters toward the hulking Accomac, which was dumped here in the '70s. The ferry serves as a point of scale because it's "roughly the same size as these vessels lying in Mallows Bay," says Paul "Sammy" Orlando, a regional coordinator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. (Much of the Accomac is out of the water; it's the most emergent vessel at the site.)
According to Martinez, who credits a local witness, the Accomac's captain ran his outdated ship aground, said "Whoops" and dinghy-ed off into the sunset.
Ospreys don't mind nesting atop the Accomac's rusty remains, and you might also spy the other kind of Osprey taking off from nearby Marine Corps Base Quantico. (Look for the white hangar across the Potomac.)
An osprey atop the S.S. Benzonia squawks as we head back across the bay and into what our guides called Burning Basin. During World War II, when metal was in demand again, the Bethlehem Steel Co. attempted another salvage operation, hauling ships into the basin and setting them on fire to access the remaining metal. However, years of tobacco farming had sent so much sediment and silt into the basin that "the boat would slowly start to sink in the mud, and the mud would eat the fire," Martinez says. Nature wins, again.
For our last stop, we follow Martinez up the peaceful Marlow's Creek, an area called a breadbasket marsh because of its abundance of edibles: wild rice and papaws, to name a few.
Paddling regulars at Mallows say fall is their favorite season because of the colors and conditions, but winter can evoke the fleet's spookiness.
"Winds from certain directions have this magical way of emptying out Mallows Bay," Orlando says. From overlooks along about three miles of park trails (it's too cold and rough to kayak then), "you can really see the remains of the ghost fleet and the related infrastructure."
The sanctuary designation - the first in the Chesapeake - gives the site what Langley calls “global street cred.” I can’t help feeling hopeful at this triumph of nature. But the generative forces that reclaimed this bay for flora and fauna can also destroy. With rising seas and fickle weather, this fleet’s very existence is, well, fleeting.