The waters of North Carolina are often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Since records began in the 16th century, over 5,000 vessels have wrecked off the state’s treacherous coast – ranging from wooden-hulled sailing ships to iron-cad warships.
The Dangers of the North Carolina Coast
Full of shifting sandbars and hidden shoals, North Carolina’s low-lying barrier islands have always made navigation difficult for passing sailors. The challenges presented by the region’s geography were exacerbated in the early days when sailors relied on hand-drawn maps and the lighthouses that now line North Carolina’s coast had not yet been built. In historic times, the many coves and inlets of the Outer Banks also provided a safe haven for wreckers and pirates – including the infamous Blackbeard.
Ironically, Blackbeard’s own ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was wrecked when she ran aground entering Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina (although some say this was a deliberate ploy on the pirate’s part, ultimately helping him to escape the law).
Even after the lighthouses were built and the pirates eradicated, ships still had to contend with the coast’s unpredictable weather. Tropical cyclones and hurricanes frequent the Outer Banks, and these sudden storms are responsible for many of the Graveyard’s victims. During the 20th century, the natural dangers of the North Carolina coast were compounded by human conflict. Amongst the state’s wrecks are many Allied and German vessels lost in action during the First and Second World Wars.
Today, the Graveyard of the Atlantic is one of the world’s most rewarding wreck-diving destinations. Each vessel tells a story, and in this article, we look at five of the most interesting shipwrecks North Carolina has to offer.
The Papoose was a 412-foot tanker torpedoed by the German submarine U-124 on March 18th, 1942. She was en route to Texas from Rhode Island at the time, on a wartime mission to collect a cargo of fuel. To avoid detection by the U-boats known to be lying in wait for Allied ships along the North Carolina coast, the Papoose was traveling with her lights blacked out. However, her efforts were in vain and she was ultimately struck by two torpedoes. Two of her crew members were killed in the first explosion, but the rest managed to escape on the ship’s lifeboats before the second torpedo hit.
Although the Papoose originally sank on her port side, the wreck shifted over the years and now lies almost completely upside down. Despite the torpedo damage and the fact that much of her superstructure has been crushed under her own weight, the hull still looms large above the seafloor. It is possible to penetrate the wreck in several places, and sand tiger sharks are often spotted lurking inside. Thanks to her offshore location in the clear waters of the Gulf Stream, visibility on the Papoose often exceeds 30 meters/ 100 feet. The depth along the wreck ranges from 27 – 37 meters/ 90 – 120 feet.
NOTE: Historians now believe that the wreck known as the Papoose is actually the wreck of the W.E. Hutton, another large tanker sunk by the same U-boat within a day of the Papoose. This can get confusing, however, because another of North Carolina’s wrecks is also (probably mistakenly) known as the W.E. Hutton. Make sure that you’re diving on the right wreck!
The USS Schurz started life as a German gunship, built in 1894. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the ship was seized by the U.S. government and later drafted into service in the U.S. Navy. Despite repeated attempts by the Germans to sink her, USS Schurz survived until the final months of the war, when she collided with U.S. merchant ship SS Florida. As was common practice during the conflict, SS Florida was traveling with her lights extinguished – and by the time the crew of the USS Schurz spotted her, it was too late. The damage to the ship was fatal, but the majority of the crew were rescued.
Today, the wreck lies in 28 – 34 meters/ 95 – 110 feet of water. It lists slightly to the port side and has suffered the ravages of weather and multiple salvage attempts. However, much of the ship’s recognizable features are still intact, including its boilers, engine, port anchor and deck guns on the bow and stern. You’re likely to see bullets and ammunition lying around, but bear in mind that removing artifacts from the wreck is now illegal. Schools of bait fish are so dense here that it is often difficult to see further than a few meters (although water clarity is generally good). Sand tiger sharks and large grouper are often spotted on the USS Schurz.
The U-352 was one of the German U-boats sent to target Allied ships traveling along the North Carolina coast during the Second World War. In May 1942, the submarine fired two torpedoes at an enemy vessel, which later turned out to be U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Icarus. The torpedoes missed their mark, and the Icarus swiftly launched its own counter-attack. The cutter used depth charges to damage the submarine and force it to the surface, whereupon her crew opened machine gun fire upon the escaping submariners. 17 crew were killed, and the survivors were seized as prisoners of war.
The wreck of the U-352 lay silently on the ocean floor for over thirty years, until it was discovered by the owner of North Carolina’s Olympus Dive Center in 1974. Today, it is one of the best-known wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Although small, it is still impressively intact. It lies on its keel in 30 meters/ 100 feet of water and the visibility is typically good. As well as the photogenic pressure hull and partly-intact conning tower of the submarine itself, you can expect to see a wide variety of marine life, including sand tiger sharks in season.
Of all North Carolina’s many wrecks, the Caribsea has one of the most tragic stories. She was struck by U-boat torpedoes whilst sailing from Cuba to Virginia in 1942. The damage was so extreme that the ship sunk almost immediately – leaving her crew no time to deploy the lifeboats. Instead, they were forced to jump overboard, where they spent 10 hours clinging to the wreckage with the U-boat circling beneath them. Eventually, merchant ship SS Norlindo came to the rescue. By the time she arrived, only seven of the 28 crew members were still alive.
The Caribsea is closer to shore than the other wrecks on this list, lying in 20 – 27 meters/ 70 – 90 feet of water. This means that visibility is compromised by ocean swells, and is often reduced to as little as 4.5 meters/ 15 feet. However, the wreck is easy to navigate and there’s still plenty of the superstructure left to admire. The main reason for sacrificing the blue water of the deeper wrecks is the Caribsea’s abundant marine life. Shoals of bait fish attract large game fish, while local researchers believe that the wreck is a breeding ground for sand tiger sharks.
USCG Cutter SPAR
Not all of the wrecks in North Carolina are victims of war or weather. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter SPAR (named after the Coast Guard motto, “Semper Paratus, Always Ready”) was intentionally sunk in 2004 as part of the state’s artificial reef program. She had an eventful life before that, though. The SPAR served in the Second World War, helping to repel submarines off the coast of Brazil. She was also one of the first vessels to circumnavigate the North American continent (achieved whilst performing oceanographic research).
Now, the 55-metre/ 180-foot cutter lies in 26 – 34 metres/ 85 – 110 feet of water. She is wonderfully intact, making it an easy wreck to navigate even when the visibility is poor. She is designed for safe penetration and boasts a full complement of marine life – ranging from large shoals of spadefish to sand tiger sharks. The USCG Cutter SPAR’s adventures didn’t end with her sinking. In August 2011, she was moved some 60 meters/ 200 feet from her original position by Hurricane Irene. She survived the ordeal intact but now lists sharply to her port side as a result.