Graveyard of the Atlantic 

“Graveyard of the Atlantic” is the name given to the treacherous Atlantic Ocean waters along the North Carolina coast as a result of it being the site of multiple numbers of unusual and unexpected shipwrecks. The remnants of some of the lost vessels are still visible to those on shore while a much larger number have been buried under the ever-shifting sands. These misfortunes can be attributed to the fact that this site is the point of rendezvous of the warm waters of the northbound Gulf Stream and the cold waters of the Artic Current off Cape Hatteras at Diamond Shoals resulting in the entire coast being an area of shifting inlets, bays, and capes. Consequently, a “graveyard” was formed on this shore which represents a major shipping hazard for coastal vessels and transatlantic vessels alike. 

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North Carolina Outer Banks_ ©Mark VanDyke

Cause and Effect

The Atlantic Ocean along North Carolina has been a backdrop of unfortunate events and has been rendered dangerous to navigate due to the coast’s shifting sands and inlets. While the name has also been granted to Sable Island off of Nova Scotia as well as Waters off Cape God, Massachusetts. An obstacle course for maritime navigation, strong currents along these waters, along with sandbar shifts due to rough waves and unpredictable currents make it difficult to steer ships. It is famously believed that Edward Teach, renowned as the Blackbeard Pirate used these challenging waters to his advantage, escaping his adversaries. 

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North Carolina along Hatteras Coast_ ©Angelo Bufalino Photography

The Graveyard extends along the entirety of the North Carolina coast, with Chicamacomico, Bodie Island, and Nags Head to Sandbridge Beach northward and southward to points at Cape Fear and Cape Lookout in curving arcs, which is known as Cape Point. Cape Point, an extremely famous location on the east coast despite its fragility, is the stretch of beach dividing Hatteras Island’s north and south-facing beaches. Besides Cape Hatteras has also been a deadly trap for sailors over the centuries. To put a cherry on top, some of the residents of the Outer Banks, infamously named Outer Banks “wreckers” depended on scavenging the wrecked vessels for their livelihoods and thus were guilty of luring ships through deception to their demise. 

The Tales of the Dead

At present, the region stretching between the Currituck Outer Banks to the Bogue Banks is referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Along the outer banks, thousands of ships have been lost and non-estimable loss of human lives has occurred over time. Well over 5,000 vessels have been recorded to have sunk since 1526 alone which was when the first ever shipwreck was recorded here. Explorers were believed to have been attracted to the mouth of the River Cape Fear and legends have it that the wild Outer Banks inhabiting Spanish Mustangs reached where they are by swimming from the sinking vessels. 

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A sand tiger swims above the wreck of USS Tarpon_ ©Tane Casserley/NOAA

While an immeasurable array of vessels, their contents and human life has been lost forever beneath the shifting sands and currents in the Grave of the Atlantic, only some of it has been recovered. The relics resting on the bottom of the ocean floor include a fleet of Spanish treasure ships, on its trip back to Europe after successful raids in the Caribbean in the year 1750, only for it to meet its untimely demise and end up strewn along the coast after an encounter with a hurricane. Other examples include the Coastal Steamer Pulaski which disappeared on its trip from Charleston to Baltimore in 1838 after it wrecked on the beach at Ocracoke resulting in the disappearance and death of 100 passengers including crewmen. Alongside, notable is the wreck of the Civil War blockade-runners and the United State gunboat Huron, the latter resulting in the disappearance of 103 crewmen.

The Storytelling

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The Graveyard of the Atlantic Musuem_ © North Carolina Maritime Musuem Hatteras

A legendary Outer Banks author, David Stick coined the term “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” through his 1952 book of the same name containing the factual account, penned in a fictional place, narrating the misfortunes, immeasurable losses, unimaginable challenges, and adventure as well as heroic rescues along these waters where the northern and the southern winds and waters meet. Hatteras village located in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has been another prime mode of story-telling of these catastrophes where the history of the region has been recorded and kept on full display. Artifacts and remnants recovered from the shipwrecks have also been featured here. 

The Culprit

1585 onwards, over 2,000 shipwrecks have occurred along this stretch between the 1585 wreck of Tiger, the English ship off the Outer Banks, and the 2012 crash of the Bounty. Amidst the treacherous, climatic, and geographical conditions surrounding these mishaps are shrouded man-made adversities including wars, piracy, and human error. Although a large number of wrecked ships were schooners, there has been a fair record of samples including barks, brigs, clipper ships, pilot boats, and brigantines. Modern crafts like freighters, trawlers, barges, lightships, and even battleships have also been unfortunately added to the records of vessels lost to the graveyard. 

A painting depicting steamship Proteus in 1910_ ©Antonio Jacobsen

The Grave of the Atlantic is a testament to mankind’s helplessness in the face of nature and his endless struggle against and in harmony with it to survive in its nearness. Despite the advancement of the 20th century, and the government’s attempt to lessen the impact by building lifesaving stations every seven miles along the coast, the damage still hasn’t been stopped. It has also not been possible to avoid the region completely despite the risks. The grave of the Atlantic is also a tale of mankind at its best and its worst. Countless heroic and selfless tales of individuals and communities coming together for the rescue and restoration of the disappeared vessels and artifacts have borne out of this region’s ill fate. Yet the legends of humankind’s greed, atrocities, and opportunistic nature have also surfaced. The Grave of the Atlantic is a story of commerce, technology, war, nature, maritime life, and the complex nature of the human condition itself. It is thus a story worth turning pages.

REFERENCES

Wikipedia. (2023). Graveyard of the Atlantic [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graveyard_of_the_Atlantic#:~:text=Graveyard%20of%20the%20Atlantic%20is,coast%27s%20shifting%20sands%20and%20inlets. [Accessed 11 February, 2023]

NCpedia. (2023). Graveyard of the Atlantic [online] Available at: https://www.ncpedia.org/graveyard-atlantic [Accessed 11 February, 2023]

Carolina Designg. (2023). Graveyard of the Atlantic: Where did the Name Come From? [online] Available at: https://www.carolinadesigns.com/obx-guide/history/graveyard-of-the-atlantic/ [Accessed 11 February, 2023]

Island Life NC. (2023). The Graveyard of the Atlantic [online] Available at: https://islandlifenc.com/the-graveyard-of-the-atlantic/ [Accessed 11 February, 2023]

Author

An architecture and art enthusiast, Rashmi Gautam, is an Architecture Student from Nepal in search of her own expression in forms of words and design. Finding solace in the company of literature, art and architecture, she can be found brooding in the nearest library or museum.