The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Imagine you’re Edward Teach. It’s North Carolina. It’s the early 1700s. You’ve earned yourself a nickname —Blackbeard. The coast of North Carolina is treacherous. It’s often called the Graveyard of the Atlantic because it’s littered with the ghosts of hundreds of ships, from schooners to pirate ships to tankers. The Outer Banks are a pretty tricky place for you, Eddie. Shoulda bought an Oru.
By Johnie Gall
Imagine you’re Edward Teach. It’s North Carolina. It’s the early 1700s. You’ve earned yourself a nickname —Blackbeard — in part because of your imposing facial hair and in part because you use these barrier islands and inlets to hide from authorities and launch attacks on the merchant ships that seek shelter here.
You’re a big game hunter and these coastal waters are your savanna. You’ll earn your place as one of the most notorious pirates in history; sometimes your appearance alone is enough to elicit the results you want. Yet your pirating days will be brief (just two years) and you’ll die in a bloody battle with the Royal Navy.
But not before running your flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, aground off the coast. Bummer. Hey, the coast of North Carolina is treacherous. It’s often called the Graveyard of the Atlantic because it’s littered with the ghosts of hundreds of ships, from schooners to pirate ships to tankers. Rough water, thick fog, German U-boats, rip currents, reefs, and “wreckers” — opportunistic thieves who tie lanterns to their horses’ necks to mimic the look of ships in safe water, effectively luring ships in to their doom — were all to blame. The Outer Banks are a pretty tricky place for you, Eddie.
Shoulda bought an Oru.
It’s impossible to escape history in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the ribs of old ships still wash up on the shores and marine fossils wait patiently under the surface to be exposed by the next hurricane. Black and white photographs of 1,000-pound marlins and their captors line restaurant walls, and you can visit the grassy dunes where the Wright brothers invented, built, and flew the first airplane. (Fun fact: Neil Armstrong carried a piece of the 1903 Wright Flyer with him to the moon.)
The Outer Banks still feel a bit like pirate country, a maritime Wild West where the rules are subjective and the weather is as rough-and-tumble as the people. It’s a tourist destination, sure, but it’s still very much the domain of the born-and-bred set and career fishermen. Things are weather beaten and sometimes washed away completely; a storm can roll in at any moment. Cape Hatteras, at the very end of the thin strip of land, is one of the only places in the country you can drive your rig out onto the beach (with a permit). Load your boards and kayaks onto the roof, hoist your flag, and claim your sliver of beach for the day. Go surfing. Dig into the muck with your toes and pull up some clams for dinner.
While we were visiting, an island appeared off the tip of the Cape overnight. We heard rumors the crescent of sand was littered with whale bones, sea glass and the splinters of old ships, but the shallow channel between land is a passageway for sharks and lethal rip currents. This is pirate country — we knew we had to forge our way across the water before the island disappeared again. We waited for the right conditions, navigated the channel, and hoisted our kayaks onto the shores, ready to pillage “Shelly Island.”
If there was treasure to be found there, well, someone plundered it before we did. We paddled back to our flagship empty handed but not empty hearted — how many people would set foot on that island before it’s gone again? Not many. It was history in the making, at least for us.
And a funny thing happened back on land. As we folded our boats and prepared to abandon our post, we caught a glimpse of a surfer nearby with a pirate ship tattooed in the middle of his back. He turned around, gave us a wave, and tugged a little on his long, black beard. It’s impossible to escape history in the Outer Banks.