- Historic Sites
If Tortugas Let You Pass
How Cape Hatteras earned its evil notoriety as graveyard of the Atlantic—and how it looked to a speculative novelist on tour
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
Two years ago, when I was a passenger aboard a Norwegian freighter bound from Rio to New York on a fourteen-day run, we spent the better part of a week quietly avoiding a hurricane. It was early September, and we were about 400 miles above the equator. There were eleven other passengers along for the ride. We also had a wireless operator as part of the ship’s company, an agreeable fellow who had developed a crush on a pretty Argentine girl with an Irish name who was on her way to this country as an exchange student, and it was he who first announced the hurricane.
It seemed to me that he wanted to throw a scare into the young lady. I may be doing him an injustice, but he appeared to think that a good scare might help to soften her up. That, though, is outside the present story. To get back to it, the hurricane’s name was Carol. It was building up approximately 120 miles to the southwest, moving on a direct line toward the course that we were following.
By that time Rio was eight days behind us. Nothing more diverting than flying fishes lay in between. We all stood in need of a little excitement, and the news of the hurricane gave us a chance to whip some up. Which was all the agitation there was. The hurricane stayed a good day’s run behind us, never getting any closer, the sky remained cloudless and the sea serene, and all that happened was that our captain left the shipping lane ordinarily traveled by vessels in the New York-Rio run and set a different course, one that would eventually take us considerably nearer the North American coast than we would have come otherwise. As I understood the strategy, the captain wanted a chance to run for cover to one of the southern ports in case he had to.
The position of the hurricane was plotted daily on a chart in a passageway that led to the dining saloon, and our wireless operator conscientiously relayed the advices about it that were being sent out every hour on the hour by the Navy’s weather station in Key West, but after a day or two most of us reconciled ourselves to safety and went back to the flying fishes.
I was standing by the rail watching them one afternoon, when I was joined by a tall, spare man who had spent thirty years in Paraguay as a missionary and educator for one of the Protestant denominations. He shall be known here as Mr. Smith. He was a kind of natural naturalist, full of firsthand information about the flora and fauna of Paraguay and the customs of the Indians who live there, i was greatly surprised when, without any introduction or warning, he said in a hollow voice that I hadn’t heard since John Barrymore shot the works as Svengali:
“If Tortugas let you pass, You beware of Hatteras.”
Caught off guard, it took me several moments to comprehend what he was driving at—we had put the Dry Tortugas behind us and were making for Cape Hatteras. We had been lucky so far but let’s not take anything for granted; we weren’t safe home yet.
I have never seen a man get so much mileage out of two lines of poetry as did Mr. Smith. They caused me to start worrying about the hurricane for the first time. I remembered all the tales I had heard of the shoals that lie off Cape Hatteras, and the many ships that have perished there, and I began to watdi the sky for signs of heavy weather. Nor did Mr. Smith do anything to lighten my concern. Soon as I’d get to the point of relaxing, there he would be with his couplet. We didn’t get back to our old relationship until Cape Hatteras was well to our stern and there was nothing more ominous on the horizon than our freighter’s home port of Brooklyn.
Mr. Smith and I parted as the good friends we had become, and then, later, when I reached home and started looking back on my voyage to Brazil, I discovered that his couplet had been one of the high points of the trip. Besides adding to my cultural enrichment, it made me want to know more about Cape Hatteras. I started reading up on it, which led me into reading about the whole chain of islands that comprise North Carolina’s outer banks, and the eventual upshot was that I made two visits to the region.
The result of these pilgrimages was to make me understand, in a way that I could not have understood otherwise, that Mr. Smith’s couplet summed up several centuries of seafaring experience. I had long been aware of Cape Hatteras’ reputation as the graveyard of the Atlantic, and what I had read made it clear that its reputation was altogether deserved, but what I had not realized was how big a cemetery the graveyard really is.
Cape Hatteras is only a small part of it. The graveyard proper runs the whole length of the North Carolina coast. It consists of two allied chains of islands known as the outer and the lower banks. These are part of a wide belt of sand that is believed to girdle the continent. Usually lying deep under water, the reef breaks through the sea just off the North Carolina mainland and takes the form of some 25 islands, some large, some small, that stretch for 350 miles.
The more northerly chain of these islands constitutes the outer banks. They are separated from the mainland by a series of sounds and run from the Virginia line south to Cape Lookout, which hooks out info the sea about two-thirds the distance down the North Carolina coast. The lower banks are the islands that lie below Cape Lookout. They extend almost to the South Carolina border and come to an end at Cape Fear.