The ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ is the nickname of a stretch of treacherous waters in the Atlantic Ocean, off the east coast of the United States. The stretch of ocean begins at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay at Cape Henry, and goes south along the coastline to the Outer Banks of Virginia and North Carolina. This stretch of ocean has plagued maritime travelers for centuries; the remaining pieces of wreckage hidden beneath the waves.
When the Labrador Current which originates in the freezing waters of the Arctic collide with the temperate waters of the Gulf stream, the results are often deadly. Rough waters and thick fog are commonplace. Add this to the ever-changing coastline, where bays, inlets, and capes come and go without warning due to brutal and unpredictable currents which move sandbars with ease. The remains of hundreds of ships, buried in the shifting sands just beyond the breakers, tell a collective tale of loss and despair.
Cape Hatteras has been an especially deadly trap for sailors over the centuries, with over 600 known shipwrecks off the shifting sandbars known as the Hatteras Islands. Many years ago, the number of ships lost was so great that professional scavengers made a comfortable living by gathering what the sea failed to claim. The competition for loot reached an unhealthy level in the Colonial days and these scavengers would lay traps; tricking ship Captains into grounding their vessels under the guise that they were in open waters.
Perhaps the most known shipwreck in the Graveyard of the Atlantic happened on December 30th, 1862. The U.S.S. Monitor, fresh off a series of engagements with Confederate forces, sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The Civil War ironclad was slowly ripped apart at the seams, while being towed through open ocean on it’s way to a new engagement site. Sixteen crew members perished and the ship was lost.
Numerous wrecks from a World War II can be found in the coastal Atlantic waters. Over fifty merchant ships remains are littered in an area which was called “Torpedo Junction” during the war. For months, German U-boats would hunt down and sink anything trying to cross the sea. Finally, a huge effort by the Navy led to the sinking of those same submarines, right in the middle of their hunting grounds. Its ironic that the hunters and hunted are forever entombed aside one another. The remains of submarine U-352 are pictured below.
The U.S.S. Huron ran aground off of Nags Head, North Carolina in rough seas; claiming the lives of 98 crew members in 1877. Earlier in 1838, the steamship Pulaski, sunk after a boiler explosion. One hundred twenty eight were lost, including a former United States Congressman. Even the great pirate Blackbeard was defeated by the Graveyard of the Atlantic. His flag ship Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground just off the North Carolina coast.
To date, there are remains of over five thousand vessels which were sunk off of those dangerous shores in the last five hundred years. The last victim was the Bounty, which sunk off of Cape Hatteras during Hurricane Sandy, October 29th, 2012. There are several shipwreck which can be observed from the shoreline. Also, when storms pass through the area, sand is displaced on the beaches, exposing some older remains.
To Learn More, Visit The North Carolina Maritime Museum
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum offers programming year round. Daily offerings include a scavenger hunt that has visitors searching for objects throughout the Museum and receiving a special surprise for their efforts.