Haunted Harbors of the Chesapeake Bay

The bay is an ideal haunting ground

Elnicki Wade

When you cruise the Chesapeake Bay and hear a bump against the side of your boat, do you wonder if it's an unmarked crab pot? Or could it be a chance encounter with a ghost ship? And when you see a glowing orb in the mist, could it be a distant lighthouse beacon, or a restless spirit roaming the marshes?If you have a preference for the paranormal, the bay is an ideal haunting ground for encounters with the supernatural. Rickety Victorian houses, isolated coves and historic battle sites set the stage for stories guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Even if you don't believe, Chesapeake folklore will add to your arsenal of spooky yarns to spin after you tie up at the dock and the sun goes down.

In the spirit of Halloween, here are four mysterious tales to spark your imagination. Explore the spirited locations if you dare.

A Witch's Double Ducking

In the early 1700s, the bay was a vast wilderness reluctant to be tamed. Settlers battled frigid winters and scorching summers that could wipe out farmlands and villages. Most of them were devout Christians who prayed for help against unpredictable natural elements and feared that witchcraft could topple their communities and tarnish their souls.

At that time, Grace Sherwood lived with her husband and three sons on a farm near the mouth of the Chesapeake on what is now Virginia's Lynnhaven Bay. She was a beautiful, headstrong maverick who was often the target of the townsmen's wistful glances. Female neighbors circulated rumors that Grace was a witch, and accused her of blighting gardens, causing livestock to die, and influencing the weather.

After eight years of badgering and slander, Grace was charged with witchcraft and sentenced to trial by ducking, the practice of tossing an accused witch into a river or lake. If she sank she was innocent, but if she floated she was guilty. On July 10, 1706, Grace was pulled out of jail and paraded down a dusty road to the bank of the Lynnhaven River in front of onlookers. Officials bound her thumbs to her big toes and flung her into the river. She treaded water long enough to untie the ropes and swim safely to shore.

Soaking wet, she glared at the meddling spectators while dark storm clouds gathered overhead. She pointed a dripping finger at them and shouted, All right, all of you po' white trash, you've worn out your shoes traipsin' here to see me ducked, but before you'll get back home again you are goin' to get the duckin' of your lives. Thunder crashed, the heavens opened, and a ferocious rain washed the horrified crowds off the roads and into the ditches. Afterward, Grace was convicted of witchcraft, served her time, and returned home to live to the ripe old age of 80 in what is now called Witch Duck Bay.

A Six-Fingered Sea Captain's Revenge

Take your boat up the bay's Pocomoke River and you'll discover an old mansion called Cellar House high on a bluff between Snow Hill and Pocomoke City. It's located on a remote track of land with bald cypress trees lining the shore, their gnarly roots digging deep into the marshlands.

A French sea captain with six fingers on his right hand built the house in the early 1700s as a wedding gift for his bride. At the time, Pocomoke City was a bustling port, and the captain managed a fleet of ships that traded in the Caribbean. Lonely and isolated, his wife became involved with a young man in the nearby village. One night the captain arrived home unexpectedly and caught the two lovers together. A vicious fight broke out. The young man was wounded, but he and the wife managed to escape. The wife was pregnant and her new beau died from his injuries a few months after the incident.

After the child was born, the wife decided to return to Cellar House and beg forgiveness from her husband. One evening, a man with a raft transported her and the baby upriver to Cellar House. Unfortunately the raft capsized, and the man and baby drowned. The wife swam to shore and dragged herself to the front door of Cellar House, pleading for mercy. The sea captain's heart was enflamed with rage, and he dragged her up to the bedroom and stabbed her to death with a knife. He left her on the blood-stained floor, gathered up his valuables, and took to the high seas with his crew, never to be seen again.

On rainy evenings, locals hear the cries of a baby and report sightings of a mysterious light in the swamp near Cellar House, which they believe is the wife's ghost holding a lantern while searching for her child. Visitors who park near the house have found a six-fingered handprint on their cars when they leave.

The Light Is Out, but the Ghosts Are In

On the southern tip of Maryland's western shore, where the Potomac River flows into the bay, stands Point Lookout regaled by many as the most haunted lighthouse in America.

The lighthouse was erected in 1830, but things started heating up during the Civil War. In 1862, Union forces built nearby Hammond General Hospital to treat wounded soldiers. In 1863, the U.S. government added a prison camp for Confederate soldiers, the largest of the Civil War, intended to house 10,000 men, and conditions were miserable. Men froze to death, food spoiled and wells became contaminated. Overcrowding led to smallpox and other diseases. By the time the camp closed in 1865, more than 50,000 prisoners had been contained there, and 3,000 to 8,000 had perished.

As if that weren't enough to stir up a bubbling paranormal stew, Point Lookout also witnessed several dramatic shipwrecks. In 1864, the U.S.S. Tulip exploded offshore, killing 47 crewmembers. During the gale of 1878, a steamship sank north of the point and 16 passengers were lost.

Lighthouse keepers lived at Point Lookout for 135 years, but the era of human inhabitants ended in 1965 when the Navy bought the lighthouse, installed electronic alarm systems and placed an automated light offshore. Today the lighthouse is part of a Maryland state park. Rangers and visitors regularly report encounters with guests from the other world, including deceased wives of lighthouse keepers, victims of shipwrecks and Civil War soldiers. Ghost hunters flock to the site to witness mysterious lights, odd smells, cold spots, sounds of moaning, voices whispering and boots marching. One renowned ghost specialist recorded 24 voices at Point Lookout. The most frequent sighting is of a Confederate soldier dressed in rags dashing across the road. Perhaps his soul is still trying to escape the camp?

Ghosts and Guinness

The epicenter for supernatural activity on the bay is Baltimore. The gallows at Fort McHenry, the haunted deck of the U.S.S. Constellation, and the grave of Edgar Allen Poe are just a few of the city's spooky spots.

But if you want to experience an evening of ghost inhabitations (and maybe a few libations), hit the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, a waterfront neighborhood full of 18th-century buildings. The Horse You Came In On is Baltimore's oldest saloon and the only Maryland bar to stay open before, during, and after Prohibition. The Horse's other claim to fame is being Poe's last drinking spot before his mysterious death. The Cat's Eye Pub has a Wall of Death displaying photos of previous owners and patrons who have passed. Their spirits like to knock pictures off the walls and shove glasses around the bar. An energetic ghost occasionally sets a heavy boxing bag in motion when all the windows are closed. And Bertha's is home to tasty mussels as well as ghosts who appear at tables and follow guests down the stairs. The neighborhood has plenty of ghostly places and you never know who will be sitting next to you.

Boaters' Superstitions


Beware of three and four-day weekends! Fridays are an unlucky day to set sail, because Jesus was crucified that day. Thursday doesn't bode well, because it's the day of Thor, god of thunder and storms. Forget about departing on the first Monday in April that's when Cain slew Abel. But you can change the mojo of unlucky days if you sneeze and turn your head to the right just before shoving off.


Sorry, ladies, but women on board allegedly bring bad luck, because they distract the crew from their duties. But topless gals are acceptable company, because their breasts calm the seas. That's why a bare-chested female figurehead with its eyes wide open mounted to a ship's bow can guide the ship to safety. Redheads of any gender fetch bad fortune, but you can reverse your fate if you speak to a carrot-top before he talks to you.


Gold hoop earrings, the symbol of sailors who have traveled around the globe, are believed to prevent drowning, and jewelry made of coral wards off lightning and hail. Tattoos became such a hallmark of superstition by the 19th century that 90 percent of the U.S. Navy wore them. Inking the North Star on your skin helps guide the way home. Tattoos of pigs and poultry were popular in pre-refrigeration times. Live animals were brought along to feed the crew, and the crates holding pigs and chicken often floated after ships sank, so those livestock images were used in tattoos to ensure that sailors wouldn't drown.


It's okay to sing, dance, and drink, but don't ever whistle on a boat. You'll summon bad weather by whistling up a storm. Spitting or tossing a coin into the waves brings good fortune, because those are considered tributes to Neptune. Never enter or leave a boat with your left foot, or you'll be courting disaster. Don't knock a bucket overboard, or luck will go out with it. And don't mess around with gulls, albatrosses, or other seafaring birds, because they are believed to carry the spirits of dead sailors. To remove the bad luck incurred by killing an albatross, a sailor would wear the lifeless bird around his neck until its flesh rotted away.

Related Articles
Women Circumnavigators

To sail around the world is an ultimate endurance test and a dream that has for centuries tempted explorers, adventurers and those who love sailing. Ferdinand Magellan was the first maritime globe trotter, and he gets all the credit — even though he didn’t finish the journey.

During a skirmish with natives in the Philippines, he was shot by a poisoned arrow and left by his crew to die. His navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano then captained the Victoria, a 31-foot, 85-ton ship with a crew of 45 men back to Spain in September of 1522, three years after Magellan led his flotilla of five ships westward across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new route to the Spice Islands.

In September of 2022, Ellen Magellan set off down the Trinity River in East Texas in the Evelyn Mae, a 22-foot, carbon fiber rowboat outfitted with two cabins and a solar power generator, on her way to the Gulf of Mexico in the first leg of an audacious, seven-year attempt to row a boat solo around the world. At the age of 27, Ellen seeks to raise awareness of the state of the ocean and promote the notion that it’s okay for women to travel alone and experience life-changing experiences.

Jeanne Baret | Wikimedia Commons

Will Magellan complete her journey? Who knows. But, inspired by her passion, Marinalife presents the stories of eight trailblazing women who circumnavigated the globe via boat in their own ways, taking on a challenge historically reserved mainly for men.

JEANNE BARET of France became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, albeit without knowing it. Jeanne disguised herself as a man to illegally accompany her botanist lover as part of a French Navy scientific voyage looking for exotic plants. Women weren’t allowed on Navy boats. In Brazil, it is believed she discovered a new exotic flowering vine and named it Bougainvillea in honor of Louis de Bougainville, who headed the around-the-world expedition. Her identity was eventually discovered in Tahiti where some historians claim she was sexually assaulted by her crewmates. Baret and her lover Philibert Commerson were later left behind in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as the expedition continued. On Mauritius, they befriended the governor, an avid botanist, and studied the flora of the region. When Commerson died, Baret married a Frenchman and together they returned unceremoniously to France three years after Baret’s journey began, thus completing the around the world journey. Bougainville later arranged for Jeanne to receive a Navy pension in recognition of her contributions on the exhibition.

NELLIE BLY was an American investigative journalist widely known for going undercover to report the terrible conditions of a New York City insane asylum. In 1888, she began what would be a 72-day trip around the world via steamship, horse and railroad to emulate Jules Verne’s popular fictional character Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. She was the first person to turn the fiction into fact. New York World Publisher Joseph Pulitzer initially was against it, believing only a man could make such a trip. He eventually acquiesced and published daily updates on her journey. The entire nation followed along as Nellie raced not only time, but also another woman. Elizabeth Bisland, representing Cosmopolitan Magazine, finished her circumnavigation four days after Nellie triumphantly arrived in New York. Bly was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2002.

KRYSTYNA CHOJNOWSKA-LISKIEWICZ, an experienced Polish sailor and ship construction engineer, became the first woman to sail around the world solo. Krystyna was selected for the challenge in a competition held by Poland’s Sailing Association to promote Polish sailing during the United Nation’s International Women’s Year. Her husband, also a shipbuilder, custom- designed the Mazurek, a 9.5-meters long by 3-meters wide boat for Krystyna. During her voyage, Krystyna was stopped and suspected of drug trafficking, overcame storms, and battled not only kidney stones, but New Zealand sailor Naomi James, who was also trying to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by herself. Krystyna beat Naomi by 39 days. Now retired, Krystyna continues to sail and encourages women to take up the sport.

Tracy Edwards and The Maiden Crew and RJA Stewardesses with Beefeater Trophy-source-Wikimedia Commons

TRACY EDWARDS was expelled from school in Britain at the age of 15 and began traveling the world. She worked on charter yachts in Greece and learned how to sail, eventually taking part in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race as a cook in 1985. Four years later, Edwards skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Race. Edwards’ Maiden, a restored second-hand racing yacht, went on to win two of the six legs of the race and finished second overall. The media covering the race was often derogatory. One sailing journalist described the Maiden as a “tin full of tarts.” Nevertheless, Tracy and her crew garnered worldwide praise, and she was awarded Britain’s Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Today, she works with charities around the world to break down barriers preventing girls from getting an education.

Laura Dekker | Savyasachi via Wikimedia Commons

DAME ELLEN MACARTHUR, a British sailor, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 on her first attempt. Her time of 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds beat the previous record by more than a day. Shortly after her return to England amid a flotilla of boats and cheering crowds, MacArthur became the youngest woman in modern history to be made Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). In 2009, she announced her retirement from competitive sailing and subsequently launched a foundation promoting the concept of the “circular economy” — rethinking how to design, make, and use the things people need, from food to clothing, to transform our economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated.

LAURA DEKKER, a New Zealand- born Dutch sailor became at age 16 the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe single handedly. Because her parents were divorced, Dutch courts stepped in to prevent her departure earlier at age 15 because national law prohibited a captain of a boat younger than 16 to sail a boat longer than 7 meters in Dutch waters. Dekker, who was born to parents living on a boat off the coast of New Zealand, first sailed solo at the age of six and soon thereafter began dreaming of sailing around the world. When she finally won the right to sail, she launched from St. Maarten in her 38’ boat Guppy. In 2018, she founded the Laura Dekker World Sailing Foundation to provide programs for young people to develop life skills such as teamwork, self-confidence, responsibility and leadership.

Jeanne Socrates | Ennya2000 from Flickr

British sailor JEANNE SOCRATES became the oldest woman at age 77 to single-handedly sail around the world, non-stop and without outside assistance. It was her third attempt. When she departed Victoria, British Columbia, aboard her 38’ boat Nereida, she was still recovering from a broken neck and broken ribs from a fall in a previous attempt. Socrates accomplished the feat in 11 months, sailing around all five great capes (Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, South East Cape of Tasmania and the South Cape of Stewart Island) and dodging three cyclones. In honor of her feat, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority in Victoria named the inner harbor commercial dock the Jean Socrates Dock. Socrates is still sailing today.

Read More
Hurricane Hunters

Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.


Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.


Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.


If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.


Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

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How Hurricanes Get Their Names

Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

Read More

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