Graveyard of the Atlantic

For such tiny strips of land, the islands of the Outer Banks are quite treacherous.  Hidden shoals, constantly moving sandbars, as well as the combining waters of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current at Hatteras make navigating the waters along the Outer Banks some of the most dangerous along the Atlantic coast.   Between 1000 and 3000 recorded shipwrecks line the sound and coast, coining it the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic.’ National Geographic issued an amazing and extremely detailed map illustrating all of the recorded shipwrecks in the area.

The earliest recorded shipwreck is of Sir Grenville’s Tiger in 1585, on one of his early expeditions to colonize the New World.   Since that first wreck, there have been countless others, some from war, some as a result of pirates and privateers.

Several ships and submarines wrecked on the Outer Banks coast as the result of warfare.  During the Civil War, one submarine, the U.S.S. Monitor, on its way back up the coast after a skirmish in Charleston SC, wrecked off the coast of Hatteras. During World War II, several German U-boats hid themselves among the Diamond Shoals, at Hatteras, ready to ambush US merchant vessels or Navy ships coming around the coast.  It was termed Torpedo Alley because of the high number of allied ships attacked by German U-boats because around 400 ships sank in 1942.

In addition to warfare and accidental wreckage, folklore of the Outer Banks tells of a common occurrence involving pirates and privateers, or ‘wreckers’ throughout its early history.  Pirates would tie a lantern around a horse’s neck, and lead it back and forth along Jockey’s Ridge (large ever changing sand dunes) at night.  This created the illusion of an anchored ship.  Thinking they were in safe waters, the ships would run aground or into the deadly shoals, and the pirates would then loot the ships and take anything valuable for themselves.  Whether or not this is actually true, it’s a fun story!

Early attempts to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals and shifting sands include building lighthouses along the coast, with the first being Cape Hatteras in 1803.  This first lighthouse was made of sandstone and stood 90 feet high, using whale oil to burn the lamp.  Unfortunately, this early attempt was unsuccessful because the lighthouse was too short and blended into the surrounding landscape. In 1853, the lighthouse gained an additional 60 feet, and was repainted to white on the bottom with red on top.  Additionally, a first order Fresnel Lens was installed, which used hundreds of glass prisms to refract and reflect light.  The current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is not the 1853 lighthouse, but a newer lighthouse, first lit in 1870, after poor management left the other in need of extensive repairs.

In addition to establishing 5 coastal lighthouses, further attempts to help ships locate the shore included different day marks (i.e. paint job) for each lighthouse, as well as an identifying light sequence.

For more information on specific wrecks with exact locations and photographs that have washed ashore, visit Fred Huteau’s website on shipwreck folklore and history.

If you’re interested in the marine life that occupy these artificial reefs, BDFC, a North Carolina based diving company, sets up bottomcams at the wrecks, and publishes the videos.  The National Ocean Service also has some great videos chronicling World War I and II off the coast of the Outer Banks.

Further Reading:

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. North Carolina Maritime Museums. 2 October 2012. Web 24 July 2013

Hurteau, Fred. ‘Folklore and History.’ Carolina Outer  Banks. 28 March 2012. Web. 24 July 2013

Hause, Eric.  ‘Shipwrecks: Graveyard of the Atlantic.’ Coastal Guide. 2011. Web 24 July 2013

Hudy, Paul M. ‘BFDC BottomCam.’ BFDC. 12 July 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

Kozak, Catherine. ‘Outer Banks ‘graveyard of atlantic’ subject of new book.’ The Item (Sumter) 1 October 2006: Page 4C. Web. 24 July 2013.,77783

National Geographic Society. ‘North Carolina Shipwrecks.’ National Geographic Society. Map. 26 June 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

National Park Service. ‘Cape Hatteras Light Station.’ NPS. NPS 17 July 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

National Park Service. ‘Lost to the Perils of the Sea.’ NPS. 5 July 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

North Carolina Department of Historic Resources. ‘First U-Boat Sunk by the U.S. Navy.’ This Day in North Carolina History. 14 April 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. ‘Lighthouses of North Carolina.’ Outer Banks Lighthouse Society: Advocates for North Carolina’s Lighthouses. 23 May 2011. Web. 24 July 2013

Outer Banks Maritime Heritage Trail. ‘WWI and WWII off the coast of North Carolina.’ National Ocean Service. 24 July 2013. Web. 24 July 2013

Graveyard of the Atlantic: 400 Years of Shipwrecks, Mysteries and Heroic Rescues. Kevin Duffus, Looking Glass Productions, 2004. Film.

Stick, David. Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Print.

Wagner, Michelle. ‘Rough Seas dislodge Duck ship wreckage.’ Outer Banks Voice. 22 March 2013. Web. 24 July 2013.


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