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Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 1

Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 1

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.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

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.

Photo Courtesy of Fine Art America

Oriental

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.  

Photo: Nick Beltly

Pocahontas

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.

Photo Courtesy of Eastern Surf Magazine

*Stay tuned for Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 2, coming soon!

 

Torpedo Junction & Ocracoke Island’s British Cemetery

If you’re a history buff visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, your itinerary likely includes popular attractions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla’s Whalehead Club, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the site from which an entire colony vanished on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. But to fully experience everything the Outer Banks has to offer those with an affinity for learning about the past of this stretch of seashore between sound and sea, a stop at the British Cemetery is a must.

Nestled well off the main road in a wooded lot on Ocracoke Island, the British Cemetery is a historic spot within the confines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 2,290-square-foot cemetery marks the final resting spot of heroic British sailors who fought alongside American troops defending the Eastern Seaboard from attacks during World War II.

national parks traveler
Photo Courtesy of the National Parks Traveler

Soon after American was thrust into war with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Germany launched a covert mission code-named Operation Paukenschlag. This initiative—whose English translation is Operation Drumroll—called for a series of assaults on unsuspecting ships sailing within the merchant-heavy sea lanes along the East Coast of the United States. Although today this stretch of the southern Outer Banks is prized for its pristine beaches, minimal development and wide array of wildlife, the area was once characterized by fiery explosions at sea and referred to as “Torpedo Junction” due to the massive amount of submarine assaults that occurred here in the early 1940s.    

offbeattravel
Photo Courtesy of OffBeatTravel.com

Orchestrated by Karl Donitz, a German admiral and U-boat commander, the operation began when five submarines were sent on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in late December 1941. Unaware of the submarines making stealth underwater advances upon the shoreline of the Outer Banks, U.S. merchant ships continued upon their trade routes, protected only by a handful of naval vessels assigned to patrol this portion of the Atlantic—the majority of which were slow and unsuited to take on submarine attacks. According to the National Park Service, only one vessel—a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter named the Dione—patrolled the waters off Cape Hatteras, rendering the region extremely vulnerable to well-timed submarine attacks.

In addition to its lack of preparedness in terms of the types and number of ships patrolling the seaboard, the U.S. also failed to take proper precautions onshore to reduce the risk of underwater assaults on naval vessels. Local lighthouses—including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse—remained lit at night, and blackout restrictions were not enforced. With lights along the shoreline ablaze throughout each evening, a brightly lit backdrop was created, allowing German U-boat commanders to easily spot the location of merchant ships passing along the coastline of the Outer Banks.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo Courtesy of he U.S. National Park Service

Having not prepared properly for a potential attack—and unknowingly creating the perfect conditions for submarine assaults—U.S. ships were an easy target for the German sailors, who had years of experience conducting submarine attacks on unsuspecting victims. The result was devastating: In the first six months of 1942 alone, 397 Allied merchant ships were struck and sunk in the poorly protected sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras—with the bright beacon of light emitted from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the massive currents that converged at Cape Point in Buxton—became a navigational focal point for U-boat commanders. More than 80 ships were sunk in this particular spot that earned the area its nickname of Torpedo Junction.

islandfreepress

Relatively unchecked by unprepared American Naval forces, the German U-boats continued their slaughter of merchant ships. When those in command came to the realization that the loss of so many ships ultimately threatened the entire war effort, the U.S. finally accepted assistance from the British Royal Navy in patrolling the coast of North Carolina and began to strike back against enemy German forces. Bolstered by the aid of 24 British ships—including a transformed trawler called the HMS Bedfordshire—the U.S. was eventually able to regain control of the waters surrounding Torpedo Junction on the Outer Banks.  

geocaching
The HMS Bedfordshire. Photo Credit: Geocaching.com

Although Admiral Donitz called off the attacks on Torpedo Junction in the summer of 1942 and sent his submarines to places that provided less resistance, the U.S. and its British allies suffered greatly from Operation Paukenschlag. On May 12, 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was struck by a torpedo while patrolling the coastline of the Outer Banks. All 34 British crew members were killed when the ship sunk, and several of their bodies washing ashore on Ocracoke Island in the days following the attack.

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Outer Bankers residing on Ocracoke Island buried the bodies of these brave British sailors who fought alongside American naval forces next to the grave of another British soldier who was killed when the San Delfino was sunk by a torpedo just one year earlier. The plot of land that serves as the final resting place of America’s allies at Torpedo Junction is now known as the British Cemetery in historic Ocracoke village and attracts hundreds of visitors to pay their respects each year. In honor of their sacrifice while assisting U.S. trips in the fight against German forces, memorial services—including a 21-gun salute and the placement of wreaths on all the graves—are held at the British Cemetery each year on the anniversary of the Bedfordshire’s sinking and attended by locals and visitors to the Outer Banks alike.

ocracoke observer
Photo Courtesy of the Ocracoke Observer

 

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