Characterized by converging currents and constantly shifting offshore shoals, the waters off the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are commonly referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Despite the construction of navigational aids such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton and the Bodie Island Lighthouse further north in South Nags Head, thousands of vessels have found themselves wrecked off the coastline of these barrier islands for centuries, resulting in a significant loss of lives and the destruction of both boats and the seafaring cargo they carried. While many of these ships have sunk to the bottom of the sea and can only been seen experienced divers—or, in some cases, from the sky above during an air tour of the shoreline—the remains of handful of Outer Banks shipwrecks can be spotted from the beach when the sand shifts just enough—or out in the surf when the tide is low enough to expose them.
Laura A. Barnes
The Laura A. Barnes was a four-masted wooden schooner that wrecked off the coast of Nags Head on a foggy night during a nor’easter on June 1, 1921. At 120 feet in length, the Laura A. Barnes was built in Camden, Maine, and was traveling from New York to South Carolina when she foundered in the dense fog. The Bodie Island Coast Guard successfully rescued the entire crew, but the ship wasn’t salvageable, so its wreckage was left sitting on the beach for several years. In 1973, as the Outer Banks became an increasingly popular vacation destination, the National Park Service moved the remains of the ship approximately one mile south, where it currently can be found near the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Coquina Beach. Unprotected from the elements, the wreckage has continued to deteriorate and break apart during hurricanes and other coastal weather systems; however, many large pieces of the ship can still be spotted in the sand dunes at this popular beach access along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Farther south, off the coast of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, the wreckage of the Oriental can be spotted in the surf by those walking along the beach. A steamship that served as a transport for Federal forces during the Civil War, the Oriental ran aground approximately three miles south of Oregon Inlet on Hatteras Island in 1862. The remains of the Oriental are often referred to as “The Boiler Wreck” because the ship’s smokestack can frequently be seen jutting out of the water just 100 yards offshore and resembles a boiler. Because the wreckage of the Oriental sits in shallow water that is only 15-20 feet in depth, this shipwreck is popular among snorkelers and divers alike. A wide array of large local fish now call this wreck their home, making it a prime spot for viewing underwater wildlife. To view the shipwrecked Oriental, park at the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge visitor center and head to the beach, as it’s easily visible from shore during good conditions, particularly at low tide. Or, grab a kayak or standup paddleboard and paddle out to sea to witness the wreck up close and personal.
Also located off the coast of Hatteras Island is the wreckage of the Pocahontas, a Civil War-era wooden paddle wheel steamer that sank on the shoals 75 feet offshore of Salvo more than 150 years ago. The wreck sits in about 15 feet of water half a mile north of Ramp 23 in Salvo, near the end of Sand Street. According to VisitOuterBanks.com, the steamer was lost during a storm on January 28, 1862, when gale-force winds rendered its boilers useless and caused the ship to wash ashore just before the battle of Roanoke Island. Although no lives were lost in the disaster, 90 of the 114 horses being transported onboard the vessel perished. The Pocahontas wreck is one of the most popular shipwrecks on the Outer Banks, as it’s easily visible from shore and serves as an excellent spot for diving. Surfers and paddleboarders have also been known to paddle out to the wreck—which, thanks to the presence of a large iron rod and portion of the paddle wheel that stick out of the ocean—makes it a one-of-a-kind location for a unique photo op.
*Stay tuned for Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 2, coming soon!