Hope above the Graveyard of the Atlantic

Photograph of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse by J Gerald Crawford. More of Crawford’s images can be found in the Art Section of Caleb and Linda Pirtle.

Photographer Gerald Crawford and I climbed the two hundred and fifty-seven steps of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, stood on the observation deck, and looked out across the Diamond Shoals. They were a treacherous reflection of the sea, referred to by those who had sailed amidst the reefs as the graveyard of the Atlantic. Some records say that as many as five hundred ships went down in those perilous coastal waters. Others say the number is closer to two thousand. So many came so close to the sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and so many died when the rocks tore apart their ships and buried them beneath angry tidal waves that pounded fiercely against the shoals.

The shoals, changing and shifting, restless and grim, are banked for ten miles out into the Atlantic. In some places, the water is only three feet deep. They lay in wait, a raging trap that gives no warning and possesses no mercy.

Ships sailing at night lost their position and found themselves aground on the shoals. They would be battered and ripped apart. Just off shore, the warm Gulf Stream collided with the colder Labrador Current, triggering powerful ocean storms and sea swells. Squalls stalked the ships in winter. Hurricanes could hit before anyone knew the bitter storms were on their way. Death kept a constant watch on a rough and maddened sea.

The Union ironclad Monitor sank in a gale just off the coast. Its helmsman reported: “The sea rolled high and pitched together in the peculiar manner seen only at Hatteras … The sea rolled over us as if our vessel were a rock in the ocean only a few inches above the water.”

The Empire Thrush plunged to the bottom with an unexploded cargo of TNT. The Mary Varney vanished into the Atlantic with chests of California gold.

Neither ever surfaced.

The explosives.

Or the gold.

The sea keeps what it takes.

It buries those who have no grave.

So many more would have been lost without the steady beam of the lighthouse cutting through the mist and the night. It rises for two hundred feet above the Outer Banks and is the tallest lighthouse on the American coast.

The Maurice A. Thurlow disappeared off Hatteras. Her crew was saved. But no trace of the vessel was found. Two weeks later, it was seen in the North Atlantic. Through the years, it has been seen in many places, but no one has ever been able to overtake the Maurice A. Thurlow and board her. She remains a ghost ship without a port.

The Carroll A. Deering suddenly appeared one morning in 1921, stranded and adrift on the Diamond Shoals. She was fully rigged and had given no distress signal. No one was on board. Food had been placed carefully on the stove and on the table. But the steering mechanism was broken, and the lifeboats were missing. The only living creature on the Carroll A. Deering was the ship’s cat. No sign of the crew was ever found.

The islanders have never believed that all wrecks were tragic. The summer of 1813 had been severe – dry and hot, plagued with drought. When winter cast its chilled winds over the sands, it left the sounds bleak and frozen.

No boats out.

No lines cast.

Fishing ceased.

And a great hunger spread across the isle of Portsmouth.

The Methodist Minister led his congregation down upon the beach, cast his eyes to heaven, and began to pray.

He said: “If it is predestined there be a wreck on the Atlantic Coast, please let it be Thy will that it happen here.”

A few days later, a vessel loaded with flour was recklessly cast up by the sea, and the winter famine was at an end.

Divine providence?


All anyone knew was that, once again, an angry sea had taken its toll.

Only this time, it had been merciful.

This time, it had saved their lives.

Next time would be different. Next time was always different.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of the traveler’s stories, Other Voices, Other Towns. 


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