Just off the idyllic coastline, past the sun-warmed sand dunes and cresting waves of the Outer Banks, lies the remains of vessels and mariners entombed in the storied, swirling waters. Called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, these treacherous waters and pounding breakers have sunk thousands of ships since residents started taking records in 1526.
The graveyard extends along the coast of North Carolina, stretching north past Chicamacomico, Bodie Island and Nags Head, then turning south in the arcs of Cape Lookout and Cape Fear. This area is a hotspot for shipwrecks because the arctic waters from the Labrador Current meet with the warm Gulf current from down south. This confluence of hot and cold results in rough waters and thick fog. The hazards of severe weather, strong currents and shallow sandbars – particularly in the Diamond Shoals area near Cape Hatteras – pose navigational challenges to even the most talented ship hands.
The sunken USS Monitor is one of the better known shipwrecks claimed by the Graveyard. After the Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War, the Monitor sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862. The Monitor was built for river combat, with a low freeboard and a heavy turret. These features made the ship less suited for rough waters. On its final voyage, the crew encountered heavy storms near Cape Hatteras. Waves splashed over the deck, eventually covering it with water that poured into the ship’s vents and ports. Despite the crew’s efforts, the Civil War ship sank 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras with the loss of 16 men.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic has posed other dangers throughout its rich history, notably the threat of the pirate Blackbeard in the 18th century. Born Edward Teach, Blackbeard came to America from Bristol, England. Teach got his sea legs by serving as a privateer during the Queen Anne’s War, during which the British government allowed him to attack and plunder other ships. After the war ended, he took over a ship and named it Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard plundered a number of ships off the North Carolina and Virginia coastlines, putting himself on the map as one of the world’s most dangerous pirates – who operated in treacherous waters, no less.
When he wasn’t at sea, legend has it that Blackbeard used North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island as a hideaway. In 1718, Blackbeard’s short – but infamous – life as a pirate came to an end when the governor of Virginia ordered naval officers to wage war with him on the waters near Ocracoke. Blackbeard was killed and his crew was defeated. As proof of the pirate’s demise, an officer cut off Blackbeard’s head and attached it to the bow of his ship before sailing home.
The sunken ships, folklore and blue waters attached to the Outer Banks have also made this area a destination for scuba divers. Although waters are violent where the Labrador and Gulf currents meet, a short dive below the current reveals a calm, clear sea with ships that have become like reefs. Wreck-loving divers (the depth is available to anyone with PADI certification) can reap the benefits of ship remains in the Graveyard, which are well preserved, accessible and often teeming with sharks, manta rays and other marine life. One popular wreck draws scuba divers to the U-352, a German U-boat that was cruising close to the shore in 1942 when a U.S. ship sunk it in 110 feet of water.
For those who prefer to experience the Graveyard from dry land, you can check out the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras.