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If Tortugas Let You Pass

July 2024
13min read

How Cape Hatteras earned its evil notoriety as graveyard
of the Atlantic—and how it looked to a speculative novelist on tour

Two years ago, when I was a passenger aboard a Norwegian freighter bound from Rio to New York on a fourteen-day run, we spent the better part of a week quietly avoiding a hurricane. It was early September, and we were about 400 miles above the equator. There were eleven other passengers along for the ride. We also had a wireless operator as part of the ship’s company, an agreeable fellow who had developed a crush on a pretty Argentine girl with an Irish name who was on her way to this country as an exchange student, and it was he who first announced the hurricane.

It seemed to me that he wanted to throw a scare into the young lady. I may be doing him an injustice, but he appeared to think that a good scare might help to soften her up. That, though, is outside the present story. To get back to it, the hurricane’s name was Carol. It was building up approximately 120 miles to the southwest, moving on a direct line toward the course that we were following.

By that time Rio was eight days behind us. Nothing more diverting than flying fishes lay in between. We all stood in need of a little excitement, and the news of the hurricane gave us a chance to whip some up. Which was all the agitation there was. The hurricane stayed a good day’s run behind us, never getting any closer, the sky remained cloudless and the sea serene, and all that happened was that our captain left the shipping lane ordinarily traveled by vessels in the New York-Rio run and set a different course, one that would eventually take us considerably nearer the North American coast than we would have come otherwise. As I understood the strategy, the captain wanted a chance to run for cover to one of the southern ports in case he had to.

The position of the hurricane was plotted daily on a chart in a passageway that led to the dining saloon, and our wireless operator conscientiously relayed the advices about it that were being sent out every hour on the hour by the Navy’s weather station in Key West, but after a day or two most of us reconciled ourselves to safety and went back to the flying fishes.

I was standing by the rail watching them one afternoon, when I was joined by a tall, spare man who had spent thirty years in Paraguay as a missionary and educator for one of the Protestant denominations. He shall be known here as Mr. Smith. He was a kind of natural naturalist, full of firsthand information about the flora and fauna of Paraguay and the customs of the Indians who live there, i was greatly surprised when, without any introduction or warning, he said in a hollow voice that I hadn’t heard since John Barrymore shot the works as Svengali:

“If Tortugas let you pass, You beware of Hatteras.”

Caught off guard, it took me several moments to comprehend what he was driving at—we had put the Dry Tortugas behind us and were making for Cape Hatteras. We had been lucky so far but let’s not take anything for granted; we weren’t safe home yet.

I have never seen a man get so much mileage out of two lines of poetry as did Mr. Smith. They caused me to start worrying about the hurricane for the first time. I remembered all the tales I had heard of the shoals that lie off Cape Hatteras, and the many ships that have perished there, and I began to watdi the sky for signs of heavy weather. Nor did Mr. Smith do anything to lighten my concern. Soon as I’d get to the point of relaxing, there he would be with his couplet. We didn’t get back to our old relationship until Cape Hatteras was well to our stern and there was nothing more ominous on the horizon than our freighter’s home port of Brooklyn.

Mr. Smith and I parted as the good friends we had become, and then, later, when I reached home and started looking back on my voyage to Brazil, I discovered that his couplet had been one of the high points of the trip. Besides adding to my cultural enrichment, it made me want to know more about Cape Hatteras. I started reading up on it, which led me into reading about the whole chain of islands that comprise North Carolina’s outer banks, and the eventual upshot was that I made two visits to the region.

The result of these pilgrimages was to make me understand, in a way that I could not have understood otherwise, that Mr. Smith’s couplet summed up several centuries of seafaring experience. I had long been aware of Cape Hatteras’ reputation as the graveyard of the Atlantic, and what I had read made it clear that its reputation was altogether deserved, but what I had not realized was how big a cemetery the graveyard really is.

Cape Hatteras is only a small part of it. The graveyard proper runs the whole length of the North Carolina coast. It consists of two allied chains of islands known as the outer and the lower banks. These are part of a wide belt of sand that is believed to girdle the continent. Usually lying deep under water, the reef breaks through the sea just off the North Carolina mainland and takes the form of some 25 islands, some large, some small, that stretch for 350 miles.

The more northerly chain of these islands constitutes the outer banks. They are separated from the mainland by a series of sounds and run from the Virginia line south to Cape Lookout, which hooks out info the sea about two-thirds the distance down the North Carolina coast. The lower banks are the islands that lie below Cape Lookout. They extend almost to the South Carolina border and come to an end at Cape Fear.

Simply because I was on them, it was the outer banks in which I was most interested. Cape Hatteras is roughly their middle point. Located just off the central part of the North Carolina coast, in itself it is nothing more alarming than a sandy spit that marks the easternmost point of North Carolina and which juts out farther into the Atlantic than any land south of the Delaware capes. What makes it dangerous is its Diamond Shoals, a deadly shallow of constantly shifting sand that stretches out into the sea for 25 miles. A lighthouse stands near the tip of Cape Hatteras, and the Diamond Shoals lightship is anchored thirteen miles out to sea, not far from the edge of the Gull Stream.

It is the Gulf Stream, that beneficent river of the North Atlantic, that has caused so many ships to come to disaster on the outer banks. In some places it flows within twelve miles of them. Taking advantage of the favorable Gulf Stream current, vessels engaged in the coastal trade—especially sailing vessels—needed only a spell of stormy weather while passing Cape Hatteras to run the risk of foundering on Diamond Shoals, or blowing ashore on one of the banks. By far the greater proportion of casualties has been coastal sailing craft. Next comes a number of somewhat larger vessels engaged in the Gull coast, West Indian and South American trade. A good many transoceanic ships have also left their bones in the graveyard, however, and these tragedies, like all the others, are traceable to the advantages that were to be had from following the Gull Stream.

The outer banks have always been a greater hazard to navigation than the lower ones. They swing out from the coast in a long curve that in some places is more than thirty miles from the mainland. The outermost point of the curve is Cape Hatteras. It is on the seaward side of a long, low, sandy island that is rarely more than a mile wide. In many places it is so narrow that the water is visible on both sides. It is separated from the mainland by Pamlico Sound, a broad, deep bay, and as Hatteras Island takes its name from the cape.

Three similar islands lie to the south of it—Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Core Bank—and to the north there stretches a long peninsula, similar in appearance to the islands, that is joined to the Virginia mainland not far from the resort community of Virginia Beach. Generally called Nags Head, the peninsula is more correctly identified as the Currituck Bank, ft too used to be an island. It was cut oft on the north by a large inlet that filled up alter a big storm in 1828.

The Currituck Bank Peninsula, together with the lour islands of Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Core Bank, make up the outer banks. They run for almost 200 miles. Even a couple of visits weren’t enough for me to get to all of them—Portsmouth and Core Bank are impossible to reach unless you have a boat and several days at your disposal—but I pretty well made the rounds of Hatteras, Ocracoke, and the Currituck Bank.

There wasn’t anything especially eventful about either visit. Rather than run the risk of repeating myself, I will stay within the limits of my first tour. My wife and I were staying with friends who have a summer place in Kill Devil Hills, a resort on the Currituck Bank, and we went with them from Kill Devil Hills to the village of Ocracoke on the southern tip of Ocracoke Island.

To get there we had first to drive from Kill Devil Hills to Oregon Inlet, take a ferry across the inlet to Hatteras Island, drive the length of Hatteras to Hatteras Inlet, take a second ferry to Ocracoke Island, and then go on to the village of Ocracoke. The journey involved a trip of a little under seventy miles. We went by jeep. Besides Kill Devil Hills there are a number of resorts on the Currituck Bank, including Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers made their first (light, and all these are connected by a paved road.

There is also a paved road on the island of Hatteras. It runs from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Inlet and passes through the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Little Kinnakeet, Big Kinnakeet, and several others. The island of Ocracoke, however, is rather a different proposition. There are no roads of any kind. Most of the island is nothing but beach—an incredibly beautiful beach—and sand dunes. Without a jeep you’re stuck. There were several times when I thought that we were going to get stuck even with one. There had been a long spell of dry weather and our jeep would sink so deep in the loose, powdery sand that we often had to get out and push. We made it, though, and reached Ocracoke village at lour o’clock. The seventymile trip had taken over eight hours. Not all of that was running time, however. We took time out whenever we wanted to, and most of it was spent looking at wrecks.

It was the wrecks that most impressed me. T had no idea that that much debris was strewn about. The beach on the Currituck Bank Peninsula has been more or less cleaned up in the resort areas, though even here the timbers of some long-forgotten vessel are apt to be uncovered alter an exceptionally heavy storm, but on the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke you come upon the bleached, broken bones of ship after ship, buried or hall-buried in the sand. Within 200 yards of the old Cape Hatteras lighthouse, 1 counted the wrecks of a dozen vessels. On Ocracoke Island I counted at least a dozen more. I kept remembering my missionary friend, and I thanked my lucky stars.

There are few pieces of wreckage on the outer banks that anyone can identify with any degree of certainty. Most of them are the remnants of vessels that were wrecked during the early part of the century, with possibly a few scattered timbers that might have belonged to ships that were blown ashore in the 1880’s and 1890’s.

Though there are many men and women on the outer banks whose memories go back that far, their memories are often in conflict. I had the names of three different schooners assigned to one piece of wreckage on Hatteras Island, and while it was easy to find people who recalled the year and month and day on which this or that vessel had come ashore—even the hour—there rarely seemed to be any agreement as to where the remains of the vessel had been finally deposited.

The best authority on the shipwrecks of the North Carolina coast is a young historian named David Stick. The author of a rather definitive volume entitled Graveyard of the Atlantic , he lives in Nags Head, one of the settlements on the Currituck Bank. I had read and liked Mr. Stick’s book and was glad when we were introduced by mutual friends. He invited me to his home and I visited with him for most of an afternoon, talking about shipwrecks. He told me that of all the ships that had been wrecked on both the outer and lower banks, he had been able to identify the remains of only eight. It made me feel a little better. I had been able to establish the names and whereabouts of two, so Mr. Stick was only six up on me.

Mr. Stick has compiled a list of vessels which he has been able to authenticate as having been totally lost along the North Carolina coast. It appears as an appendix to his book. Mr. Stick told me that he included no vessel of less than fifty tons, nor those lost in the inland waters, nor the ones that came ashore and were refloated, nor the hundreds of others that were lost at sea in the immediate neighborhood of the banks. The first casualty in Mr. Stick’s compilation was a brigantine of unknown name that foundered on Cape Fear in 1526; the last on which he reports was the Panamanian freighter Miget which came ashore on Portsmouth Island in 1952 and broke to pieces in the surf. Six hundred and forty-eight ships are accounted for in all.

A loss of 648 ships over 426 years (1526-1952) works out to a loss of approximately one and one-half ships a year. That, however, isn’t quite an accurate picture. Shipwrecks were not reported with any accuracy until 1837, when Congress authorized the chartering of ships to assist distressed navigators. The records before 1837 are meager and fragmentary. Mr. Stick, for example, working his way through the three centuries from 1526 to 1837, was able to authenticate the loss of but 26 vessels. Should we eliminate these from our original total of 648 and confine ourselves to the years 18371952, the arithmetic would then work out to a loss of 622 ships over 115 years, or an average of more than five a year.

Some years were naturally worse than others—sixteen ships in 1837 as against two in 1839; nine in 1842 and only one in 1843; the record toll of 1863-64 when some 35 gunboats and blockade runners, mostly Con- federate, piled up on the banks. During the years from 1837 to 1952, excluding the Civil War and World War II, for which no reliable figures are available, more than 900 persons were lost in peacetime shipwrecks on the banks.

Four major disasters accounted for more than a third of these—the wreck of the steamer Home at Ocracoke on October 9, 1837 (9° nves lost); the wreck of the steamship Pulaski off New River on June 14, 1838 (100 lives lost); the wreck of the U.S.S. Huron , a barkentine-rigged screw-steamer fitted out as a gunboat, at Nags Head on November 24, 1877 (103 lives lost); and the wreck of the steamer Metropolis at Currituck Beach on January 31, 1878 (85 lives lost). No traces are left of the Home , the Pulaski , and the Metropolis . The remains of the Huron , however, submerged in the water off the beach at Nags Head, are clearly visible on an exceptionally fine day.

One of the most substantial pieces of wreckage on the outer banks, and because of the story behind it one of the most dramatic, is the bow of the schooner Carroll A. Deering . It lies in the sand near the north end of Ocracoke Island.

The Deering , a five-master, was among the last of the really large sailing vessels ever built. Launched in 1919 at Bath, Maine, she was 255 feet long, 44.3 feet across the beam, and had a total displacement of 1,879 tons. Sailing from Boston in September, 1920, and bound for Buenos Aires with a mixed cargo, she made the run successfully. She then put in at several South American ports, but was apparently unable to pick up any cargo. She left Rio in ballast on December 2, 1920. Early in the morning of January 31, 1921, one of the men attached to the Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station saw her grounded on Diamond Shoals. A strong southwest wind was blowing, and the tide was running hard.

Lifesavers from four Coast Guard stations in the immediate neighborhood—Hatteras, Big Kinnakeet, Creeds Hill, and Hatteras Inlet—went out to the Deering in two boats. The sea was so heavy, however, that they were able to come only within a quarter-mile of her. She was not reached and boarded until four days later. The boarding party found a deserted, ghostly ship. Her steering gear was disabled and water filled her hold. Charts were scattered across the floor of the captain’s quarters. Her lifeboats were gone and a ladder dangled over one side. A meal had been set out in the galley, and there was food on the stove.

The people who live on the banks, as well as a lot of people who don’t, have been evolving theories to explain what happened to her—mutiny, piracy, and abandonment at sea. The latter is the one most generally credited. It suggests that the Deering , disabled in a storm off the lower Carolina coast and being blown helplessly toward Diamond Shoals, was abandoned by her crew and officers who took to the sea in open boats. They were never seen again.

In talking with some of the people who live on the outer banks—bankers, they are called—I soon discovered that wrecks like that of the Deering have a way of serving as points of personal reference. One venerable gentleman who lives on Hatteras recalled that when the barkentine J. W. Dresser came ashore on July 23, 1895, it was his twelfth birthday; a lady told me that she well recollected the wreck of the schooner Catherine M. Monahan off Ocracoke on August 24, 1910, because she had the worst toothache in her life; another lady remembered that some of the nicest hats she ever owned were acquired at a salvage auction on Nags Head beach after the steamer Elizabeth was blown ashore on March 19, 1919.

“There was everything aboard the Elizabeth ,” she said. “She was on her way from Baltimore to the Canal Zone and she carried everything from three automobiles to a case of silk shirts. The men had a lighter and a schooner boat and they unloaded her cargo in that. Soon as they’d get a load of stuff ashore, it would be auctioned off on the beach. I bought in a case of white hats, a dozen, and they were the nicest hats you ever saw. There was much more on the Elizabeth than the men could get off. A big tide came in and she floated herself on the fifth day and that was the end of the auction. There’s been nothing like the Elizabeth to come ashore since. Those hats lasted me for I don’t know how long.”

Few events in the more recent history of the outer banks, I gathered, exceeded the Elizabeth auction in importance. The achievement of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, only a few miles from where the Elizabeth grounded herself, was obviously nowhere in the same class. And I gathered, also, that there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the days when “going wrecking”—plundering wrecked ships—was the leading cottage industry of the outer banks.

Today it is tourism instead. The outer banks are having a boom. New dwellings, new motels, and new filling stations are going up just about everywhere. The outer banks are almost inevitably due for a large transformation. A major portion of Hatteras Island, along with nearly the whole of Ocracoke and a good part of the southern tip of the Currituck Bank, has been acquired by the federal government as a national park. The area extends for seventy miles and includes some 30,000 acres. It has been christened The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area.

All sorts of plans are afoot for it—a $3,000,000, two-lane highway from Virginia Beach to Nags Head; the widening and improving of the present road on Hatteras; a brand new road running the length of Ocracoke; special picnic grounds; and even bronze markers to identify the wreckage in the sand. I heard talkperhaps overenthusiastic talk—of as many as a million visitors a year.

The residents of the established communities on the Currituck Bank—Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills—seem to be taking the proposed development more or less in their stride. The people with whom I talked on Ocracoke and Hatteras, however, appeared rather uncertain as to how to proceed. They are not unused to strangers, and there are several huntingand-fishing camps and a few small hotels on both islands, but tourists in tens of thousands represent something else entirely.

To find out more about the tourist business—how best to attract visitors and how best to provide for their needs—a delegation of folk from Hatteras came over to Nags Head one evening to attend a dinner given by the local chamber of commerce. I was invited to the dinner but I didn’t go, and now I’m sorry I didn’t. Hard though it is to date such things exactly, it probably marked the end of an era.

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