Getting that Sinking Feeling: Kayaking in the Nation’s Largest Sunken Ship Graveyard

So it’s bad enough when Terri and I get in a car together, especially if she wants to drive. She considers my need to have hold of the steering wheel at all times the sign of a true control freak; I see it more as the need to not spend my last moments on earth dying in a fiery inferno caused by her inattention to small details—like which side of the road she’s supposed to be on.

So I was a little hesitant when we went on a trip to southern Maryland and were paired together in a two-person kayak to explore Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, home to the largest sunken ship graveyard in North America. There were a few things that made me balk, like the fact that Terri literally had no experience kayaking. And that a kayak has no brakes. Not to mention that we would be weaving through the rust-covered ribs of centuries-old boats in water that was over our heads.

And did you see the part about how this was a SUNKEN ship graveyard? I wasn’t looking forward to its claiming another victim.

Common sense aside, we decided to check out this part of the Potomac River Water Trail, so we put on our life vests and got into the boat.

Terri: Should I sit in the front or back?

Vanessa: That depends. Do you want to run us into things, or do you want to try to stop us from running into things, probably unsuccessfully?

Terri: The first?

Vanessa: Sit in front.

So with Terri as the navigator (two words that should never be together in a sentence), we launched our craft and started paddling through an eerie, spectral landscape. The waters of the bay cover more than 100 sunken or scuttled ships, including an 18th century schooner, a Confederate blockade runner and a Revolutionary-era longboat. Almost 100 wooden ships, part of the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet, also met their end here, and you can still wind through their rust and barnacle-encrusted ribs that rise out of the water as if signaling their surrender.

Terri: This is unbelievable!

Vanessa: The fact that we’re paddling over an entire underwater fleet, or that we haven’t dumped the kayak yet?

Terri: Actually both.

There was something surreal about coming up alongside the Accomac, a massive, steel-hulled ferry that served in World War II before finding its way to the bay. More surprising was realizing that what looked like a bunch of tangled branches on the bow was actually a huge osprey nest… with a very vocal and protective bird inside.

Terri (paddling forward): Look at that ! Let’s get closer!

Vanessa (paddling backward): Not a good plan.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) Why aren’t we moving?

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) Because I don’t have a death wish.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) I just want to see the nest.

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) And I just want to see tomorrow. Did you seriously never see the movie, The Birds?

Realizing that we were not going to go either forward or backward, we called a truce and just floated, which gave us the opportunity to check out more of the area’s wildlife. Despite being a ‘graveyard,’ the bay is teeming with life, from tiny little turtles smaller than the palm of your hand to elegant herons and even bald eagles that thrive in this area nominated as a Natural Marine Sanctuary.

Despite my initial misgivings, Terri and I did survive our first kayak excursion together, and we’ve since been on a few more. The secret, I’ve discovered, is easy—make sure to wear a life jacket.

And ask for your own kayak.

If You Go

Unlike a lot of areas where it’s difficult to get into the water, Mallows Bay Park has a boat ramp that provides easy access to the Potomac River. You can rent a kayak and paddle through the area on your own, but hiring a local guide is a great way to learn more about the history of the fleet, as well as the landscape that was once a fishing and hunting ground for the Piscataway Indians.

We greatly enjoyed our time with Judy Lathrop of Atlantic Kayak Company, who is a wealth of knowledge:, 301-292-6455.

If you want to learn more about the area’s maritime history or take part in even more outdoor adventures, visit or