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Navigating the Chesapeake

A boater’s guide to where the hot water is

A boater’s guide to where the hot water is

The following list includes only the major facilities with security zones that boaters are likely to encounter while cruising the main body of Chesapeake Bay.


Read the other story in this package: Navigating Chesapeake security zones  

Aberdeen Proving Ground

This huge facility covers the waterfront of the Bay’s Western Shore from the aptly named Gunpowder River northeast of Baltimore almost up to the town of Havre de Grace. Among the major operations at APG are the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command (which includes the Pentagon’s premier testing range for ammunition, artillery and military ordnance); the Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command (chemical and biological weapons); and the Navy’s Underwater Explosion Test Facility, which conducts shock and vibration testing in an inland pond. It’s easy to tell when APG is active: The thunderous concussions of heavy explosives can be heard (and felt) for miles up and down the Bay.

Nautical charts show a long magenta security line enclosing the APG perimeter (marked with yellow special-purpose buoys on the water). The entire area is closed to the public Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but during weekends and national holidays boats may navigate through the area or anchor; fishing and crabbing is allowed; and water skiing is permitted no closer than 200 meters (about 220 yards) to shore. Prohibited at all times are swimming; touching bottom, shore or piers; or entering exclusion areas. Military range boats patrol APG’s border, especially when testing is under way.

CurtisBay Depot and Coast Guard Base, Baltimore

CurtisBay, off-limits to the public, is a heavy industrial area just south of the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, immediately below the I-695 bridge across the PatapscoRiver. For the Coast Guard the Curtis Bay Yard is its sole shipbuilding and major repair facility, and essential to its fleet support operations. Curtis Bay Depot is part of the Defense National Stockpile and base for the Army Reserve’s 949th Transportation Company, which tows a lot of barges.

U.S. Naval Academy and Greenbury Pont, Annapolis

Because it is a school (rather than a weapons base), the academy is generally open and much more welcoming to the public, although a photo I.D. is needed to get past the gate and on campus. Visiting boats can anchor in the clearly marked public mooring or anchor fields in Spa Creek near the NavalAcademy.

Directly across the Severn River from the academy is Greenbury Point, which used to have 19 towering VLF (very low frequency) radio towers that communicated with the Navy’s submarine fleet. Satellites made the towers obsolete, and all but three were torn down in the 1990s. The surviving towers are now owned by Maryland and remain one of the best nighttime navigational aids in the area.


Chesapeake Bay Detachment, Chesapeake Beach, Md.

This facility on the WesternShore south of Deale, Md., has a large parabolic antenna that conducts research in radar, electronic warfare, optical devices, materials and communications. It also houses a technology center for safety and survivability, which conducts fire research in simulated ship environments. A Navy tower about 10 miles across the Bay on the Eastern Shore, on TilghmanIsland, allows for “unique” experiments in radar and electronic warfare technology. Since this facility is close to my home port, I occasionally had to suffer through these experiments when fighter jets would suddenly roar overhead barely above the water, trying to evade detection by the radar base on shore.

Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and Cove Point LNG Terminal, Md.

These two energy facilities are just north of Cove Point on the Bay’s WesternShore, above Solomons Island, Md. Both have 500-yard security zones enforced by the Coast Guard. The Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal accounts for about a third of all LNG imported to the United States and is the largest of its kind in the nation, but its remote location makes it relatively easy to secure. Nuclear plants and LNG facilities are considered prime terrorist targets, receive heavy security attention, and should be given a wide berth by recreational boats at all times. and

PatuxentRiver Naval Air Station, SolomonsIsland, Md.

The sprawling PaxRiver base, just south of SolomonsIsland, stretches along 25 miles of shoreline at the mouth of the PatuxentRiver. It is the Navy’s principal aviation R&D, test and evaluation facility, and is headquarters for the NavalTestPilotSchool and the Naval Air Systems Command. If you spend any time around Pax, you are likely to see a variety of Navy planes flying about, including some of its biggest, newest and even smallest (drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles”).

In addition to the main Pax base, there are three nearby target ranges that pleasure boaters need to avoid:

• Bombing targets about six miles south-southeast of Cedar Point (marked on charts by a magenta prohibited zone).

• BloodsworthIsland, about 17 miles southeast of Cedar Point, just below HooperStrait. The island was used as a bombing range until 1996, and in 2005 the Navy expressed interest in resuming “live-fire” activities there, although local and congressional opposition has blocked those plans for now. The key bombing zone is marked on charts by a magenta prohibited zone, but the entire island is off-limits. In the late 1980s, before active bombing was stopped, I once sailed past Bloodsworth while it was being shelled by a Navy destroyer. Seeing the yellow muzzle flashes from the deck guns, and watching the artillery shells arc through the air and explode on shore, was an impressive sight.

• Hannibal target ship, about six miles northwest of SmithIsland (below BloodsworthIsland and just above the Maryland-Virginia state line) is an old coal ship that was sunk in the Bay for use as a bombing and strafing target. It is a quite active target, so be alert for Navy range boats operating to the west of Smith Island; they will warn you out of the area if planes or helicopters from the Pax River base are shooting up the Hannibal.


In this region there are numerous military bases (mostly but not always Navy) that have exclusion zones extending off the shore. They are marked with special-purpose buoys and are routinely patrolled by range boats.

• York River — Three contiguous facilities line the south shore of the river: CampPerry (Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity); Cheatham Annex (FleetIndustrialSupplyCenter); and Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, which the Navy describes as its “premier weapons facility,” where munitions are loaded aboard Atlantic Fleet warships. For obvious reasons, the Naval Weapons Station is heavily guarded.

• Langley Air Force Base — The oldest continually active air base in the nation — home to the First Fighter Wing — occupies the entire western side of the Back River.

• Norfolk Naval Base and Craney Island Fuel Depot — the largest naval base on earth, at the mouth of the James and Elizabeth Rivers. Headquarters to commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet; supreme allied commander, Atlantic Fleet; Fleet Marine Force; Naval Air Station Norfolk; and Naval Station Norfolk. This is where numerous tense encounters have occurred between Navy security forces and the constant parade of recreational and commercial boats passing by on the Intracoastal Waterway. The base is home port to aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and other massive warships that take up a lot of space when entering or leaving the harbor. To slake the Atlantic Fleet’s enormous thirst, the Navy’s largest gas station in the United States — the Craney Island Fuel Terminal — is immediately across the ElizabethRiver from the south end of the Norfolk Naval Base. Skippers passing this area need to be extremely alert, tuned to Channel 16, and prepared to take evasive action if instructed to do so. and

Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Va.

This is the oldest shipyard in the country devoted exclusively to ship repair and overhaul, dating to 1767 and located on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River about eight miles south-southeast of the Norfolk Naval Base, in Hampton Roads. It works on as many 55 ships on any given day and is considered the best-protected of the Navy installations in the Hampton Roads area when a hurricane threatens.

Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base

This huge base shares Little Creek with several civilian marinas, so be sure not to stray into the Navy’s facilities; bear to starboard upon entering to find the commercial marinas. Local charts warn visitors to be alert for Navy diving operations at the mouth of the creek.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, linking Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

The reason for the tunnels is that the Navy saw a continuous bridge over the mouth of the bay as a security threat, were it to collapse (accidentally or otherwise) and close off access to Norfolk. As a result, the roadway burrows underneath the mouth of the Chesapeake in two spots: the southern Thimble Shoals Channel (used primarily by Navy ships) and the northern Chesapeake Channel (used mainly by commercial and recreational vessels). If you see low-flying helicopters in the area, they are Navy helicopters towing sonar “slides” and sweeping the channel for mines.

Information in this list comes from publicly available documents and Web sites, two in particular: the DOD Installation Directory, online at ,and, an information clearinghouse on defense and national security issues, online at