Historian outlines shipwrecks, rescues that shaped Outer Banks

Published 6:04 pm Thursday, September 14, 2017

It’s known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic — an entire coastline littered with more than 600 shipwrecks. Over the centuries, countless sailors have lost their lives to the challenge of North Carolina’s shoals and rough seas.

Sunday at 2 p.m., historian Kevin Duffus will tell the tale of North Carolina’s shipwrecks at First United Methodist Church in Washington, with his program, “How Shipwrecks Shaped the Destiny of the Outer Banks.” The event is sponsored by Friends of the Brown Library and is free and open to the public.

Duffus is the author of “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks,” which author David Stick once called the sequel to his 1952 book, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

From wrecks of sailors sent from countries across the sea in search of new colonies to merchant ships targeted by German submarines’ torpedoes during World War II, there’s ample material to discuss.

“It’s pretty remarkable that we’re talking about 450 years ago or more that the tradition of shipwrecks has been occurring on the coast of North Carolina,” Duffus said.

Duffus won’t just focus on shipwrecks, however. He’ll be talking about some of the more notable lifesaving events that have occurred along North Carolina’s coast, including the first recorded rescue of the shipwrecked in the mid-1500s, as recounted to members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s first expedition.

“The Secotan informed them that there had been a shipwreck occurring around Ocracoke around 1557. … What’s notable about that wreck were the survivors of the shipwreck were rescued by the Native Americans,” Duffus said. Though these Spanish explorers did not stick around for long, the story was written into history. “No one knows what happened to the survivors. The Indians said they built a boat out of the wreckage and hung up some sails and took off, never to be seen again.”

Duffus will also tell of a remarkable rescue off of Cape Lookout in 1906, in which the entire lifesaving crew was sick with the flu yet refused shirk their duty when a ship in distress was spotted. For 32 hours, with no food and little water, the crew braved a winter storm to rescue six people clinging to the wreckage.

“To me that represents the finest aspects of humanity and also the net that North Carolina’s lifesaving stations seem to be a breed apart from many other states’,” Duffus said. “We still have people like that among us, but we don’t think about it very often, but it’s during times of catastrophes that heroes like that emerge.”

Duffus’ program comes courtesy of a North Carolina Humanities Council grant that makes it possible for nonprofit groups, such as Friends of the Brown Library, to bring in speakers. This is Duffus’ third program he’s presented for Brown Library.

First United Methodist Church is located at 304 W. Second St., Washington. For more information about Kevin Duffus, visit www.kevinduffus.com.