- 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
Simply because I was on them, it was the outer banks in which I was most interested. Cape Hatteras is roughly their middle point. Located just off the central part of the North Carolina coast, in itself it is nothing more alarming than a sandy spit that marks the easternmost point of North Carolina and which juts out farther into the Atlantic than any land south of the Delaware capes. What makes it dangerous is its Diamond Shoals, a deadly shallow of constantly shifting sand that stretches out into the sea for 25 miles. A lighthouse stands near the tip of Cape Hatteras, and the Diamond Shoals lightship is anchored thirteen miles out to sea, not far from the edge of the Gull Stream.
It is the Gulf Stream, that beneficent river of the North Atlantic, that has caused so many ships to come to disaster on the outer banks. In some places it flows within twelve miles of them. Taking advantage of the favorable Gulf Stream current, vessels engaged in the coastal trade—especially sailing vessels—needed only a spell of stormy weather while passing Cape Hatteras to run the risk of foundering on Diamond Shoals, or blowing ashore on one of the banks. By far the greater proportion of casualties has been coastal sailing craft. Next comes a number of somewhat larger vessels engaged in the Gull coast, West Indian and South American trade. A good many transoceanic ships have also left their bones in the graveyard, however, and these tragedies, like all the others, are traceable to the advantages that were to be had from following the Gull Stream.
The outer banks have always been a greater hazard to navigation than the lower ones. They swing out from the coast in a long curve that in some places is more than thirty miles from the mainland. The outermost point of the curve is Cape Hatteras. It is on the seaward side of a long, low, sandy island that is rarely more than a mile wide. In many places it is so narrow that the water is visible on both sides. It is separated from the mainland by Pamlico Sound, a broad, deep bay, and as Hatteras Island takes its name from the cape.
Three similar islands lie to the south of it—Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Core Bank—and to the north there stretches a long peninsula, similar in appearance to the islands, that is joined to the Virginia mainland not far from the resort community of Virginia Beach. Generally called Nags Head, the peninsula is more correctly identified as the Currituck Bank, ft too used to be an island. It was cut oft on the north by a large inlet that filled up alter a big storm in 1828.
The Currituck Bank Peninsula, together with the lour islands of Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Core Bank, make up the outer banks. They run for almost 200 miles. Even a couple of visits weren’t enough for me to get to all of them—Portsmouth and Core Bank are impossible to reach unless you have a boat and several days at your disposal—but I pretty well made the rounds of Hatteras, Ocracoke, and the Currituck Bank.
There wasn’t anything especially eventful about either visit. Rather than run the risk of repeating myself, I will stay within the limits of my first tour. My wife and I were staying with friends who have a summer place in Kill Devil Hills, a resort on the Currituck Bank, and we went with them from Kill Devil Hills to the village of Ocracoke on the southern tip of Ocracoke Island.
To get there we had first to drive from Kill Devil Hills to Oregon Inlet, take a ferry across the inlet to Hatteras Island, drive the length of Hatteras to Hatteras Inlet, take a second ferry to Ocracoke Island, and then go on to the village of Ocracoke. The journey involved a trip of a little under seventy miles. We went by jeep. Besides Kill Devil Hills there are a number of resorts on the Currituck Bank, including Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers made their first (light, and all these are connected by a paved road.
There is also a paved road on the island of Hatteras. It runs from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Inlet and passes through the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Little Kinnakeet, Big Kinnakeet, and several others. The island of Ocracoke, however, is rather a different proposition. There are no roads of any kind. Most of the island is nothing but beach—an incredibly beautiful beach—and sand dunes. Without a jeep you’re stuck. There were several times when I thought that we were going to get stuck even with one. There had been a long spell of dry weather and our jeep would sink so deep in the loose, powdery sand that we often had to get out and push. We made it, though, and reached Ocracoke village at lour o’clock. The seventymile trip had taken over eight hours. Not all of that was running time, however. We took time out whenever we wanted to, and most of it was spent looking at wrecks.
It was the wrecks that most impressed me. T had no idea that that much debris was strewn about. The beach on the Currituck Bank Peninsula has been more or less cleaned up in the resort areas, though even here the timbers of some long-forgotten vessel are apt to be uncovered alter an exceptionally heavy storm, but on the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke you come upon the bleached, broken bones of ship after ship, buried or hall-buried in the sand. Within 200 yards of the old Cape Hatteras lighthouse, 1 counted the wrecks of a dozen vessels. On Ocracoke Island I counted at least a dozen more. I kept remembering my missionary friend, and I thanked my lucky stars.