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Graveyard of the Atlantic

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Graveyard of the Atlantic is a nickname of treacherous waters and location of numerous shipwrecks off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This location has numerous shoals and frequent rough seas. Another area off Nova Scotia is also known (to a much lesser degree) as the resting place of many shipwrecks. This is due to frequent thick fog which increases danger, especially near Sable Island. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, located in Hatteras Village, focuses on the history of this area and features many artifacts recovered from area shipwrecks.

Outer Banks[edit]

Line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", 1863, depicting the USS Monitor sinking in a storm off Cape Hatteras on the night of 30-31 December 1862.

Along the Outer Banks, navigational challenges posed by the Diamond Shoals area off Cape Hatteras, caused the loss of thousands of ships and an unknown number of human lives. More than 5,000 ships have sunk in these waters since record keeping began in 1526.[1] Among the better known shipwrecks was the USS Monitor,[2] a participant in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War. The Monitor foundered and sank on December 31, 1862 off Cape Hatteras. Survivors of a much earlier shipwreck created the lost town of Wash Woods, Virginia using lumber that washed ashore. However, the extreme weather eventually claimed the town as well.

The Graveyard extends along the whole of the North Carolina coast, northward past Chicamacomico, Bodie Island, and Nags Head to Sandbridge Beach, and southward in gently curving arcs to the points at Cape Lookout and Cape Fear.[3] This spot is known as Cape Point, which is the stretch of beach that divides Hatteras Island's north and south facing beaches. This dangerous spot is known for its good fishing and surfing. It is a very famous spot on the east coast, despite its fragile location. Cape Hatteras has been a deadly trap for sailors that have entered for past centuries. This stretch of shore is home to more than 600 shipwrecks off the shifting sandbars of the Hatteras Islands.[4] The sandbars shift due to rough waves and unpredictable currents. Another danger was the Outer Banks "wreckers." Some residents of the Outer Banks, known as wreckers, made part of their living by scavenging wrecked ships — or by luring ships to their destruction.[5] Horses with a lantern tied to their neck would be walked along the beach. The lanterns' up and down motion would appear to other ships to represent clear water and a ship ahead. The unsuspecting captain would then drive his ship ashore following the false light.

The first recorded shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina was in the early 16th century. This wreck was reported in 1526, off the mouth of Cape Fear River.[4] The large numbers of explorers who came to the area in subsequent years had to travel through the rough waters to get to the coast of North Carolina. In June 1718, Edward Teach — better known as Blackbeard the pirate — ran his flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, aground near present-day Beaufort Inlet, NC. Thirty two years later, in August 1750, at least three Spanish merchantmen ran aground in off North Carolina during a hurricane. The El Salvador[6] sank near Cape Lookout, the Nuestra Señora de Soledad went ashore on near present-day Core Banks, and the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe went ashore near present-day Ocracoke Island.[7]

During World War II, German U-boats would sit offshore and silhouette passing freighters and tankers against the lights onshore. Dozens of ships along the North Carolina coast were torpedoed by submarines in this fashion in what became known as Torpedo Alley. The most recent ship lost was on October 29, 2012: the Bounty sank off Cape Hatteras when Hurricane Sandy passed through. Two people were pronounced dead from the accident.

Sable Island[edit]

The title "Graveyard of the Atlantic" is also applied to the ever-shifting sandy shoals around Sable Island, which lies off the coast of central Nova Scotia, which have claimed many hundreds of ships over the centuries, of which 475 were recorded since the early seventeenth century [8] and by the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.[9] This island surrounded by hundreds of shipwrecks is located 160 kilometers off the coast of Nova Scotia.[10]

People believe that the island was first discovered in the 1520s by a European man named João Álvares Fagundes, who named the island Fagundes, but was shortly changed by the end of the 16th century.[10] A French man came and tried to create a convict colony and succeeded. The name of the island was changed by the French to île de Sable, which meant Sand Island.[10] The reasoning behind the name was because the island was made of sand, measuring 20 miles long and one mile wide. The highest point on the island is only 85 feet tall, and there are many fresh and salt water lakes and fresh water ponds.[11]

Sable Island history is full of many mysteries, pirates, shipwrecks, and treasures. Rev. Andrew LeMercier was a French Huguenot priest from Boston who was trying to colonize the island in 1738.[11] On this mysterious island, there are approximately 300 wild horses that are believed to be the descendants of survivors of those that were introduced by Rev. Andrew. These horses still feed off the wild grass and fresh water sources throughout the island, mainly staying near Lake Wallace. Lake Wallace is currently off-limits to anyone without a permit from the Canadian Coast Guard,[11] as the island is now a nature reserve filled with many types of wildlife, including the horses, seals, and arctic birds. One unique bird that is semi-native to the island, the Ipswich sparrow, only visits long enough to breed.[11]

Sable Island is dangerous because it is always shifting and does not have a set position in the ocean. It is dangerous to ships thanks to the meeting of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Current, which can cause very rough waters and thick fog. Its situation is especially dangerous for ships, because they can be pushed near the island and then run aground. Sable Island has been called the fastest moving island in the world, due to the shifting of the plates below it. The rough weather also causes planes that fly nearby to crash into the ocean, where they sometimes surface on the shores of the island after storms.

Considering this checkered history, the Canadian Government has installed a few additions to prevent ships from running aground. In 1872, the Canadian Government added two lighthouses on each side of the elongated island, which has helped with the number of wrecks,[10] with the last known shipwreck occurring in 1999. The lighthouses are automated, but the island has a local crew year-round, which consists of five meteorologists.

Due to the strange (and then-uninhabited) location of Sable Island, Guglielmo Marconi made it an outpost for radio communication experimentation. In 1901, Marconi thought this Atlantic island would be a good location for a wireless station for transatlantic communication.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grussing, Valerie J. "Reanimating the Graveyard: Heritage Tourism Development of North Carolina Shipwrecks" (PDF). Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Stick, D. (1981). Graveyard of the Atlantic. North Carolina, The University of North Carolina.
  4. ^ a b (2008). Graveyard of the Atlantic.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "El Salvador". Intersal, Inc.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Sable Island Green Horse Society (October 2002). "Sable Island Beach: Shipwrecks". Archived from the original on 2009-02-20. Retrieved 2009-05-22.
  9. ^ John Leaning (1999-08-22). "Cape Cod's reputation as a graveyard of the Atlantic endures". Cape Cod Times. Archived from the original on 2012-07-07. Retrieved 2009-05-22.
  10. ^ a b c d e Jacobs, F (2009). Graveyard of the Atlantic.
  11. ^ a b c d Keddy, V (2008). Mysteries of Canada.

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