The Graveyard of the Atlantic

Published: April 17th 2016
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I will always remember the happenings of that week in late October 2012. I remember following the hurricane as it skirted the coast and watching the path of the small ship that was sailing south with all of its might trying to avoid the hurricane’s wrath. I didn’t like how close the two were to each other on the map and each dispatch I read filled my heart with dread, and a little bit of excitement. The sensible part of me, along with most of the media, questioned the events and decisions that put the grand old tall ship in the path of such a formidable storm. The adventurer in me longed for the golden age of the tall ships and windjammers, before satellites and accurate weather forecasts, when the toughest mariners to sail the seas frequently came up against hurricanes and fought their way through to tell the tale. I had experienced big storms on two different occasions on two different tall ships, so it wasn’t hard for me to fill my imagination with the crew’s plight, though I knew a hurricane was an entirely different beast from what I had experienced. There were times of hope when it looked like they were going to pull through, but it wasn’t to be. The final act of the Bounty, a beautiful replica of the original ship that ended her life on Pitcairn Island, took place on the 29thoff the coast of Cape Hatteras, right in the center of one of the most treacherous stretches of the Atlantic coast. The Graveyard of the Atlantic had claimed another grand ship along with its captain and one of the crew.

What happened to the Bounty was tragic, but not out of character for the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The USS Monitor, a feared ironclad battleship from the Civil War, went down in a hurricane off the banks in December 1862. Another hurricane claimed the Huron in 1877. All told, the Graveyard of the Atlantic had claimed thousands of ships and countless lives over the years – There were even German u-boats down there! Many of the original settlements on the Outer Banks got their start due to the frequent shipwrecks. The Outer Banks and the remote communities located there were inseparably tied to the sea. Several lovely lighthouses were built to help the passing ships navigate the treacherous waters and life-saving stations were constructed and salvage industries built to minimize the loss of life and goods when there were shipwrecks. With modern navigation aids and accurate weather forecasts the shipwrecks were less common, though, as the Bounty proved, the waters were still treacherous.

The Outer Banks had always intrigued me, but I had never had the opportunity to visit. In June 2013, about nine months after the Bounty lost its fight with the sea, I found myself standing on the shore of the Outer Banks staring out over the Graveyard of the Atlantic with my own eyes. I was in town for a family reunion. There were twenty-one of us plus one dog and we had rented a large house a few blocks from the beach in Nags Head. I had a week to explore the coast and take in as much of the history as I could. We spent most of our time getting reacquainted with each other. We went to the beach, we ate several wonderful meals, and we broke up into smaller groups to explore the sites.

One day Maria and I went on a pilgrimage of sorts to a place just up the coast called Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk. While Kitty Hawk was just as tied to the sea as the other towns in the Outer Banks, it was famous for an entirely different reason. Back on December 17, 1903 two self-trained engineers left the ground behind them and soared into the history books by completing the first powered, controlled flight, ushering in the age of aviation. The Wright brothers had chosen Kitty Hawk for its favorable wind conditions and after several years of trial and error they succeeded. We found the massive field where the magic happened and, on a large hill on the site, a huge stone monument commemorated their success in grand art-deco style. Maria and I climbed up the hill and surveyed the site from the base of the lovely monument. We then climbed down to the sculpture of the first flight, which was tucked away at the edge of the site. We each took a quick flight with Orville on his flyer and then we had a bit of fun with the lovely bronze statues – It was a very nice sculpture that encouraged interaction and it was clear that the large group of kids there loved it!

On another day I set off with my mom and Maria on a long road trip. We headed south along the narrow bank of sand that made up the Outer Banks. Once we left Nag’s Head behind us the development quickly stopped and there was nothing but seashore. Pamlico Sound stretched off to our right toward the mainland and the mighty Atlantic pounded the shore to our left, just beyond the dunes. It was a surreal stretch of road. In places it was so narrow that it seemed like a berm that had been built to support the road, in other places it was so wide that we could only see one shore and a bunch of stunted trees. We passed the beautiful Bodie Island Lighthouse and then crossed over the Oregon Inlet on a huge bridge that gave us an amazing view of the ocean. We passed through the sleepy town of Rodanthe, which was made famous by a book and movie, and then we drove through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Next came the town of Avon and then we arrived in Buxton on Hatteras Island. We stopped for lunch at an unassuming place on the sound called The Fish House. We ate our fried seafood lunch while we looked out on the boats in the canal beside the restaurant. After lunch, we drove into the Buxton Woods Reserve and reached our objective for the road trip.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was the most famous lighthouse in the country. It had the distinction of being the tallest brick lighthouse tower in the United States, at 210 feet. It was visible from a distance of twenty nautical miles and it was built to protect passing ships from the dangerous Diamond Shoals located just off shore from Cape Hatteras. The original tower was built in 1802. It was 100 feet shorter than the later tower and its light was so dim that captains could confuse it with the lights of passing steamers. The original tower was partially destroyed at the start of the Civil War. Since it was considered the most important light on the east coast, Congress approved the construction of a new lighthouse. The new tower was completed at the end of 1871 and six years later the tower from the original lighthouse was demolished. The lighthouse had a troubled history with the sea. Beach erosion made the Coast Guard abandon the light in 1935. The National Park Service took over the lighthouse then and they worked hard to stop, or slow the erosion. During World War II the Coast Guard used the tower as an observation post and they moved the light beacon back then. In 1999 the waves were less than twenty feet away from the lighthouse and it was deemed to be in eminent peril. One of the most ambitious civil engineering feats in recent history managed to save the tower by moving it in one piece to a new location 1500 feet inland. The photos of the move were impressive to look at and the contractors that did it won awards and accolades for their work. The move still holds the record for the highest brick structure ever moved in one piece.

I was excited to be there. I loved lighthouses and maritime history and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was one of the most famous. Maria was also familiar with the lighthouse. Its distinctive black and white spiral daymark and its red stone and brick base had led her to use it as the model of a painting she did a few years before. My mom was not feeling up to climbing to the top of the tower, so we left her sitting in the shade in view of the lighthouse and Maria and I went for our walk up. The ranger standing at the base of the structure told us that it was too windy to go out on the platform, but that we could still climb up and look out the door. We entered through the lovely stone doorway, walked across the lovely black and white checker tiled floor and started climbing the red iron stairs. The spiral staircase went around and around stopping at several landings along the way. Two hundred and sixty-eight steps later we reached the upper platform. The wind was still too strong for them to let us out so we contented ourselves with looking out the open door. The top of the tower was a staggering distance above the ocean and the beach and gave us a view spanning more than twenty miles out to sea. We took our turns at the open door and then we climbed up a few more steps to inspect the Fresnel lens of the famous old light. We soaked up as much of the ambiance as we could and then we started back down. We met back up with my mom and then the three of us walked out to the beach to take in the view of the lighthouse from there. Afterward, we stopped into an antique shop that my mom had wanted to see and looked through the eclectic offerings. Afterward we headed back to Nag’s head, stopping for coffee and ice cream along the way. We had a great trip!

We spent the rest of our time around Nag’s Head. One day Maria and I walked around Jockey’s Ridge State park and explored the massive dunes and forests with my cousin Jon. On another day we went over to the beautiful Bodie Island Lighthouse where we walked on a nice boardwalk in the salt marsh and climbed up another lovely spiral staircase – We were able to go out on the platform there. On another trip we visited Roanoke Island and strolled through the Elizabethan Gardens while we searched for the lost colony, and then we visited the aquarium with the kids.

In all we spent about a week in the Outer Banks. We spent a lot of time at the beach and the pool and having fun meals together. As the last days of our rental approached my cousins started to leave. After the mass exodus on the last day, Maria, my mom, my cousin Jon and I were all that were left. We turned in the keys and we said farewell to the coast and to the Graveyard of the Atlantic. We drove over the long bridge that joined Nag’s Head with the mainland and we headed home. Our time in the Outer banks had been amazing. There was so much still to see, so I knew I would be back someday.

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