Roughly 580 nautical miles west of Bermuda lay a graveyard of a thousand shipwrecks. At least, it is believed to be a thousand; a total accumulation of the effects of storms, wars, ever-changing geological features, and human error. Beyond the grave bed lies a flat, thin chain of barrier islands called the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The largest of the islands being: Hatteras and Ocracoke. Bodie Island is also one of the larger portions of the chain, and sits to the north of Hatteras; due to the changing coastal landscape, Bodie Island is now a peninsula. Cape Hatteras is located in a bend on Hatteras Island; near which, two major Atlantic currents meet: the cold Labrador Current that flows south and the warm Florida Current, from the Gulf Stream, that flows north. Such a mix of two polar currents causes turbulent waters and a large expanse of shifting, shallow sandbars called shoals. The most famous of these treacherous shoals off of Hatteras is the Diamond Shoals.
The island of Hatteras is broken up into little groups of towns. On the northern most part of the island is the cluster that includes: Waves, Salvo, and Rodanthe. Traveling south on the island, next comes Avon; then the Buxton and Frisco area; and finally, the town of Hatteras, from where one catches the ferry to Ocracoke Island. Each town and island has their own ghosts, and in some cases, also their own legends. The mysteries of the Outer Banks are plentiful enough for any visitor.
Many of the shipwrecks that have occurred off of the North Carolina coast, that did not involve war-time activities, happened during the early to mid-1800s. During this time, ships navigated the oceans using sail-power and the crews would sail them close to the islands in order to catch one of the two strong currents. There were times when the high powered winds and storms common to the area would then drive the ships aground. Because of the flat layout of the islands, many ships did not realize that they were going to beach themselves until it was too late.
In the early naval history of this country, and this is a statement true of more than just America, people did not feel the need to record the losses of ships for posterity. Shipwrecks were an expected job hazard, and for the owners and bankers, it was a forfeiture; possibly marked on their books somewhere under the title of damages or losses, with no accounting of the ships name or the hired hands that were lost. They could always look in a port town for their next employees and build a new ship.
For the dead, the damage is not as easily forgotten or forgiven. Those who have passed on will know details of the past that no one else will ever learn. Names, records, and dates that have been lost over the years or burned, discarded, simply not preserved for posterity. The dead are the window into this unknown world in the past.
Investigators who have wandered the beaches of coastal North Carolina during both day and night have come across a plethora of voices recounting tales of guilt, war, and piracy. One of these inquires on the Waves stretch of Hatteras Island, yielded a response claiming that; (they) “sank in seventy-three.” The date of the investigation was 1 p.m. April 7th, 2013, conducted by the Black Moon Paranormal Society, a group that originates in Pennsylvania. If one were to go with documented shipwrecks that sank off the coast, none were listed for 1773. In 1873, nine ships were lost off of the coast, with only three documenting the possibility of lives lost. The R.B. Thompson – a Schooner – July 3rd – lost off of Cape Hatteras on July 3, 1873 – 9 lives lost; the Henrietta – a Clipper – Nov. 4th – lost off of Frying Pan Shoals – 14 lives lost. Finally, the most likely candidate considering the area of the sinking in combination with the area of the investigation, a Schooner called William, lost off of Chicamacomico with a “?” listed for lives lost.
A separate investigation in the same area, this one conducted on the evening of October 30th, 2013, revealed a very remorseful and confessional spirit. He did not say his name, what was gathered from him was that he was a “Captain,” who was on a “passenger” ship that sunk during a “war.” Two passenger ships did sink off of the coast of the Outer Banks during World War II: the City of New York and The Buarque. The Buarque was lost off of Kill Devil Hills on February 15th, 1942; while the other was lost on March 29th, 1942 off of Cape Hatteras.
Considering the lack of an accent in the Captain’s voice, the Brazilian steamer, The Buarque, may not be the ship in question. The City of New York was on its way from Capetown, South Africa, under the command of George T. Sullivan, and headed towards its home port of New York. She was about forty miles off of Hatteras when she was torpedoed by German Submarine U-160, directed by Georg Lessen. The torpedo struck port side; and wiped out the communication systems and one of the life boats. The Armed Guard on the ship opened fire on the submarine; while the captain gave the order to abandon the ship.
Just before a second torpedo struck the ship, the Armed Guard jumped off the ship into the water. In a matter of twenty minutes, the City of New York sank stern first into the Atlantic. There were 109 survivors. The dead would count to twenty-four: one Armed Guard, sixteen crewmen, and seven passengers (among the passengers included men, women and children). The U-boat that sank the ship went down on July 14th, 1943 with all hands lost. The captain of the City of New York survived the attack; but it is not always for the living to determine why a person may haunt a certain location, that may well be for the spirit to decide in specific instances.
Ocracoke Island, NC
The stories of pirates are centered on Ocracoke Island, particularly in a little patch of the island known as Springer’s Point. While sunlight shines down on this spot, no picture could do the beauty of the scene justice. As night closes in on this secluded picturesque cove on the island, the tone becomes something almost menacing. Springer’s Point is known by the locals as a haunted place. Knowing that the island was once host to a massive pirate jamboree and that the featured guest, and current ghost, was none other than Blackbeard the Pirate, does give chills to more than a few visitors.
Blackbeard, formerly Edward Teach, was known as a notorious and ferocious pirate. In truth though, he was never documented as committing murder outside of the heat of battle or raids. It was just off of Springer’s Point where, in 1718, Blackbeard met his end at the hands of the Royal Navy. The locals believe that in death, Teach came back to his little island hole that had provided him a degree of safety before his death. A tall shadowy figure believed to be the pirate has been seen in the wooded area there. Both with and without his head, this was taken as a prize during the battle. Some have even claimed to see a phantom image of Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which met a watery fate along with her captain off the coast of North Carolina. Or, the apparition image may be that of another legendary ship off the same coast.
These next accounts may seem a bit on the verge of the fantastical. Not because the stories are about flaming phantom ships, there are quite a few of those; it is because it occurs in an area with high tourist traffic and there are very few eyewitness accounts. I include it only because it is a local legend of the Outer Banks and also, a former anonymous member of the Coast Guard claims to have seen something unusual on the waters around North Carolina.
There are two ships matching the same description and with an identical legend; which leads to the conclusion that they are one in the same. One is called the “Flaming Ship of Ocracoke” and the other is the “Flaming Ship of New Bern”. As the legends state: every year a flaming ship appears off the island of Ocracoke or at the mouth of the Neuse River at the Pamlico Sound (which is the sound between Ocracoke and the mainland.) The ship never appears to be consumed by the fire; it just burns until it fades away.
On board the ship was a group of Palatines who set sail in 1710 from England to America. This part of the story does hold a basis in historical records. The Palatines were German Protestants from the Palatinate region of Germany. As with many other travelers during this time period, the Palatines were fleeing their homeland for a very specific reason, war! When Philip V, the grandson of the French King Louis XIV, ascended to the Spanish throne following the death of Charles II in 1700, the reason for the war was sealed. Even though it was at Charles’ bequest that Philip follow his rule; other countries in Europe feared that the relation between Spain and France would lead to an empire. The event was called the War of Spanish Succession in Europe; and in America, it was considered a part of, and called, Queen Anne’s War. Though, this latter war was more about who would take control of the American continent.
In 1709, the English government issued sixteen hundred tents for the Palatine encampments; and welcomed the victims of their enemies. Quickly, the influx of the Germans into England became too much for the country to bear. In 1710, it is estimated that between ten and thirty thousand people immigrated to London. To combat this influx, the government began sending the refugees to America. In 1710, three large groups of Palatines sailed from London, one of which sailed to Carolina. The other two went to Ireland and New York where there was already a large number of Palatines.
To protect themselves from thieves on their voyage, the people pretended to be poor; with only enough money to make a voyage to the New World. In actuality, the Palatines aboard the ship were quite wealthy. It was only when they caught sight of the shoreline did they reveal their true wealth. In their excitement to go ashore, they began to carry their precious items on to the deck of the ship, showing off their fortune to every crew member aboard the ship.
In a moment of quick decision, the captain ruled that they would not set foot on land until the morning. Disheartened, the passengers put their belongings away and settled in for the night. After it was believed that all the men, women, and children were asleep; the captain and his crew murdered every last one of them. Most of the Palatines throats were slit before many of them could awaken.
Using the lifeboats to escape, they loaded the cargo into the boats and set fire to the ship. As they rowed away from the flaming ship, the crew turned to look back. In amazement, they discovered that the ship was not sinking. Instead, it began to move and screams echoed from the hull as if the passengers were still alive. This site absolutely terrified the crewmembers, who discarded their misbegotten treasures immediately upon landing on the shore. Every year the ship re-appears, waiting for the blood stolen from to be repaid.
There are no recordings from this time that mention a ship sinking during this year; let alone a Palatine ship. This does not mean that the ship did not exist. During the 1700s, it was not uncommon for a ship not to be logged or for the sinking of a ship to not be recorded. Quite often, ships would fall victims to pirates or mainland scavengers who would not want the final location of the vessel to be known. Back in a day and age where it would take days for any news to travel throughout a single colony; hiding vessels was fairly easy and they were either set on fire, ripped apart, or left to the waves.
Cape Hatteras, NC
Besides the tales of Blackbeard and the Flaming Ship, another prominent ghostly legend is repeatedly told to residents and visitors alike, an apparition who remains to warn the locals of impending danger. He is called the Gray Man of Hatteras.The legend says that this man has been appearing on the beaches between the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Cape Point, which is near the lighthouse and a popular fishing site, since the early 20th century. He only appears right before a major hurricane comes to the island. The man is wearing a sou’wester, which is a collapsible oilskin rain hat; and he is seen swinging his right arm as if in a warning for someone to come away from the beach.
The version of the story that has been made most popular by local legend author Charles Harry Whedbee ascertains that the spirit was witnessed in 1966, a few days before Labor Day by members of the Coast Guard. This would mark the coming storm as Hurricane Faith, which swept through the coast on August 29th, 1966 and caused four drownings along the coast.
Fitting with the story, it is assumed that due to the spirit’s duty, he was a man who died during a storm. Some believe that he was a local man by the last name of Gray, which is why he is called the Gray Man of Hatteras; it is true that surname of Gray is a part of the local population of the island. They say that he was swept out to sea and drowned during a storm; which gives the cause for why he is out before hurricanes to warn people of the beaches.
During the early 1900 and late 1800s, the time period when it is claimed that the Gray Man first started to appear; there were only a few tropical storms and hurricanes on the coast of North Carolina. Of the early 20th century storms, none caused heavy damage and there were no recordings of ships or lives lost. Looking back on the late 1800s, two storms did ravage the North Carolina coast within months of each other; the San Ciriaco Hurricane on August 18, 1899 cost ten vessels and throughout the state, twenty lives. The other unnamed hurricane occurred on October 31st, 1899 and cost one ship wreck and one life. The only shipwreck listed for this time was the Roger Moore, a schooner, which sank on October 30, 1899 off of Big Kinnakeet. No lives were lost on this vessel. Of course, upon examination of the facts at hand, there could be other explanations for his existence on the shore.
Between the years of 1900 and 1902, three vessels were lost off of Cape Hatteras in the approximate area of the legendary man: the William H. Kemal, a schooner lost on April 5th, 1900 off of Cape Hatteras with unknown lives lost; the Virginia, a steamer lost on May 2nd, 1900 off of Cape Hatteras with six lives lost; and the Wesley M. Oler, a schooner lost on December 5th, 1902 off of Hatteras Inlet with ten lives lost.
As it has been previously stated, the waters off of Cape Hatteras are extremely treacherous and undiscerning in their taste for vessels riding upon the waves. While the record keeping for lost ships has improved over the years, it is impossible to know the names of all who are lost. Perhaps, some of the locals are correct when they say that the Gray Man is someone with the last name Gray. A few believe that he came by the name because of the color of his long, gray beard; a marked characteristic in old paintings of seasoned sea captains. No matter the case, if one believes the tale, then one must heed the watcher’s warning, or else they may find themselves joining him in his purposeful afterlife. The Gray Man may not be alone in his work.
In the darkness of the night, visitors and paranormal investigators have reported seeing shadows on the beach by the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. These shadows are noticeable even in the dark because they are blacker than the night. Some appear on the shore, acting as if they had just washed up from the surf. Voices can be heard whispering, or calling out for help; carrying across the salty sea air in both male and female tones. Members of the Hatteras Island Paranormal Society have an additional account of the activity in the area. One of the investigators witnessed a match flame light on the beach and on the other side of the flame, she saw a man’s face. The overall appearance of the scene was that there was a man lighting a cigarette on the beach; however, there was no physical person present when the event happened.
There are many other tales of the Outer Banks, too many to retell in a moment’s time. The coastal area of North Carolina is not the only location tied to the grand and sometimes traumatic relationship between humans and the sea. Around the world, ports, harbors, water ways, lighthouses, coastal towns, and even working ships carrying phantom images from the past and spirits with a story to tell; a tale that may have a well-deserved place in history. All that is required is for one to search for it.
All the stories listed above were told to me while I was living on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Additional information was from:
Judge Charles Harry Whedbee, “The Flaming Ship of Ocracoke & Other Tales of the Outer Banks.” (John F. Blair, 1971)
With a special thanks to the Hatteras Paranormal Society and the Black Moon Paranormal Society for their accounts.