What secrets wash ashore the Outer Banks?

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse rises above the Outer Banks and overlooks the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse rises above the Outer Banks and overlooks the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

THE CHERRY-COLORED SUN was just breaking the horizon and spreading its fiery fingers across the expanse of water. The noise of the surf was both intimidating and soothing. A gray-headed couple left their bare footprints on the beach. George Andrews bent, with some trouble, and retrieved something from the sand. “It’s a coin, Annabelle,” he announced to his wife.

The elderly beachcombers came here every morning. Their pant-legs were rolled up and Annabelle carried a little fine mesh bag to carry their found treasures. They were staying in a cottage nearby for the summer. Their son lived not far away and they ate their evening meals with him. His young family was their pride and joy. There were days when they could not do their beachcombing.

Violent storms often battered the coastline near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. There were also days the fine sand was dried out by the wind and flying about so fiercely that their faces were sandpapered and their eyes filled with tears. On those days they stayed in the cottage where Annabelle worked on needlepoint that would end up as much coveted Christmas gifts and George did what research he could about their finds on the beach.

“I am glad you had that talk with Cappy, George,” Annabelle said as they headed back to the cottage. Cappy was an old man who stayed on the pier most of the time. He was a native and knew quite a lot about the area.

“Yes. If I had not had that discussion with Cappy, I would think the little things we find are not much of anything. I was shocked when he said to me, ‘Most people who comb the beach regularly, especially after storms, will consistently find old coins, antique china bits and crockery, metal hardware from ancient wooden ships—maybe even a plaque with a juicy name on it.’ I asked him why that was and then he told me. I have heard of it of course, but did not know it was so close by.”

“The Graveyard of the Atlantic, you mean?”

“Yes, The Graveyard of the Atlantic, dear.”

*     *     *

     North Carolina’s Outer Banks have caused the demise of over 697 ships in the last four hundred years. There is a two hundred mile long ribbon of islands that mark the treacherous water. They hold a unique and deadly position. Warm tropical waters moving north—the Gulf Stream travels through the area—crash into arctic currents flowing south. This generates bizarre weather conditions, roiling seas, high winds and sometimes dense fog. The underwater topography shifts frequently creating shallow shoals. There are many things to snare a ship in these waters.

In 1524 a European explorer on his way to what he thought was the Orient took a chance and made it through the waters unscathed. The next one to try in 1526 was snagged by the banks. The ship carrying settlers was lost. Soon, Spaniards were carting gold home to Spain and wanted to hasten their trip. They attempted to use the Gulf Stream in traversing the area and more ships were lost, and most were carrying gold or other riches.

Some of the stranded people were able to make it to the mainland and they built crude huts, tended gardens and spent their lives there living on fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. They became known as Bankers. A few were able to supplement their existence by making their way out to some of the wrecks and pillaging the hulks. This practice gave birth to another one: luring unwary ships toward the beach and when they foundered, then they could be rifled. They often used torches at night to do just such a thing. The reputation of the area was not helped by marauding pirates who had also operated in the area, including Blackbeard, himself.

*     *     *

   “Look, Annabelle.” George Andrews carried a large book over to his wife. There are over one hundred wrecks buried within twenty miles of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Annabelle ran her finger over the diagram of crosses and dots.

“And look here.” George turned the page. “A few years back the people at Duke University’s Marine Laboratory made a chart of over half of the wrecks that occurred between 1526 and 1945. The little drawings indicate if the wreck is merely stranded, or partially submerged or totally submerged.”

“And that is only half of them,” Annabelle said with wonder. “I guess there is no point in diving for possible treasure.”

“No. I think they found out long ago, that the water is too dangerous for much of that. No telling what riches lay beneath the sea.” George shook his head as he glanced over at the tabletop where their treasures were spread. There were a few doubloons, some other coins that George was convinced were pieces of eight, there were some shards of delft china and pottery, some glass beads, some pieces of wood that looked purposeful, and there was a small metal plaque that was hand etched with the name, The Seraphina.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained.


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