Causes of Shipwrecks

What makes these waters a magnet for shipwrecks, giving the area off Cape Hatteras the well-deserved nickname of Graveyard of the Atlantic? Essentially, it's the Diamond Shoals. Stretching 14 miles into the Atlantic off the coast of Buxton, the shoals are shifting sandbars with accompanying shifting currents. With no significant natural landmarks, ships had to get close to shore to get their bearings, making it easy for them to succumb to the pounding currents and get smashed to pieces, or run aground on a sandbar, stranded in the middle of the ocean. As a result, the first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was erected in 1803 as a guide for ships that ventured too close to the dark shores of Cape Hatteras. At only 90 feet high, the lighthouse did little to protect shipwrecks, so the second (and existing) lighthouse went into operation in 1870. At a towering 208 feet, The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse remains the tallest lighthouse in the world.

In addition to the shifting sandbars and barely visible shoreline, the two primary currents that hug the East Coast, the cold northern Labrador Current and the crystal clear, warm Gulf Stream Current, meet in the middle of Hatteras Island, creating ideal conditions for wild, rough seas. Compounding the equation is the frequent joining of high and low pressure systems forming from the combination of warm and cold waters, making conditions ripe for treacherous weather systems to form and thrive in these waters.

In addition, the occasional Nor'easter, tropical storm or hurricane which has a tendency to brush the Outer Banks, has always caused problems for the most experienced of sailors. In fact, these naturally treacherous conditions were the root cause for many of the shipwrecks that comprise the Graveyard of the Atlantic. One shipwreck that was devastated by a hurricane can still be spotted today in the surf and in the sand just north of Salvo. The George A. Kohler was a large schooner that was grounded by a hurricane in 1933. This ship sat on the beach for a decade before it was salvaged for its iron during World War II.

One of the Outer Banks most recent shipwrecks, the Lois Joyce, was caught in a December Nor'easter. A 100-foot commercial fishing trawler, the Lois Joyce became lost in 1981 while attempting to enter Oregon Inlet. Though the crew was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, the $1,000,000 vessel was destroyed. The wreck is located on the northern ocean side hook at the mouth of Oregon Inlet, and can still be seen, particularly at low tide.

Pirates and the Outer Banks

Obviously, warfare played another significant role in making these waters so dangerous, but another threat, and another deadly hindrance to sailors who braved the Graveyard of the Atlantic, lingered off the coast of North Carolina for hundreds of years.

Pirates have laid claim to the waters off the Outer Banks coastline for centuries because of the intertwining barrier islands that could hide them from authority and allow them to sneak upon unsuspecting ships. The most recognized pirate, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, loved coastal North Carolina and considered Bath, North Carolina his home out of the water. Supposedly semi-retired, Blackbeard met his demise off Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718, after being lured into battle by a British sloop.

Many locals claim that Ocracoke Island got its name from Blackbeard himself on this fateful day, as eager for the morning to arrive so he could start the battle against the British ship, Blackbeard was heard yelling "O, cock crow! O, cock crow!" Also according to legend, even though Blackbeard lost, he kept fighting after being shot, stabbed and slashed across the throat, until he died while cocking a pistol.

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Graveyard of the Atlantic: Causes of Shipwrecks

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