History, legend and folklore come together on the Outer Banks when you speak of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. There have been more than a thousand documented shipwrecks along these barrier islands, with a tale to go with each of them.

What created the Graveyard of the Atlantic?

Click on image for larger view.

The Outer Banks protrude eastward into the Atlantic so that ships traveling north and south tend to stay near shore to shorten their trips. But the ocean is shallow along the "Banks" and several natural forces shift the ocean sand constantly, piling it into "shoals". One of the most infamous shoals is off Cape Hatteras point. The NASA image at left shows how the warm Gulf Stream (in reds) flows north from Florida, hugging the coast until it reaches Cape Hatteras. Here it slams into the cold northern waters of the Labrador Current (in blue and green). This clash of currents created Diamond Shoals.
Additionally, hurricanes rip their way up the Atlantic coastline from the south, and "Nor'easters" blow down from the north. The wind and swirling ocean currents caused by all these factors shift the sands of the ocean bottom, piling it into shoals, which hide just beneath the water's surface. This creates treacherous areas where ships run aground. When this happens in a storm, ships can be torn apart by huge waves. Even if they avoid the shoals, they still could be blown close to shore and dashed to pieces in the surf like the Altoona at right. Below: The Altoona,
wrecked Oct. 22, 1878.

Click for larger view. Photo by Fred Hurteau.

Click on images for larger view.
Photos by Fred Hurteau.

Above: Unmarked wreckage lies on the beach waiting to be covered or moved by the next Hurricane.

Far Right: The Oriental, a federal transport which sank May 8, 1862, is pounded by ocean surf near Pea Island Visitor Center.

Below: This unmarked wreck is barely visible in calm water just off the beach.

Most of the shipwrecks occurred along the Outer Banks before the advent of modern weather prediction and satellite imaging because there was little or no warning of dangerous storms. Hurricanes, tropical storms and nor'easters seemed to appear from nowhere, trapping ships in these treacherous waters.

A Little History

German submarine attacks accounted for a great number of the 20th Century shipwrecks in these waters. In the summer of 1918, World War I German U-boats began causing havoc along the Outer Banks. Then again in World War II, one month after Pearl Harbor was bombed, German U-boats appeared along the Outer Banks and sank 60 ships in a very short time. After the U.S. finally took measures to stop the U-boats only 4 other ships were sunk off the Outer Banks by the Germans through the rest of the war.
While the occurrence of shipwrecks has decreased drastically since World War II, ships still can become disabled and wreck in these waters. Even with modern navigational aids, radio communication and better weather information, large ships wrecked along these dangerous shores in 1954, 1959 and 1961.

Two Famous Shipwrecks

It was not only storms and treacherous shoals that sank ships along the Outer Banks. And German U-boats weren't the only villains to haunt these waters. Pirates handed out their own brand of treachery along these barrier islands. The most infamous pirate of them all, Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard, called these waters home. His flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, went down at Beaufort Inlet in June of 1718. A shipwreck believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, or "QAR", was discovered near Beaufort Inlet on Nov. 21, 1996, by Intersal Inc., a private research firm.

More information about the artifacts and research of this shipwreck can be found at the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources web site for the QAR. Blackbeard's history, shipwreck research and other information can be found at the N.C. Maritime Museum.

The second famous shipwreck is one every school kid learns about, the Civil War ironclad Monitor ( pictured below ), which sank somewhere off Cape Hatteras in a storm on New Year's Eve of 1862. Its exact whereabouts was unknown until university researchers discovered the Monitor in 1973 about 17 miles off Cape Hatteras. This famous shipwreck became the first National Underwater Marine Sanctuary (photo). Salvage and restoration efforts are currently underway.

Blackbeard the pirate (above). The USS Monitor (below).

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