Very close to these shifting sands is where the remnants of the cold waters of the Labrador Current meet the beautiful blue but warm water of the Gulf Stream and create perfect conditions for untamed, furious seas. Strong offshore winds are created here as this is an ideal place for low and high pressure weather systems to meet. Throw into this equation the occasional Nor'easter and you have a very dangerous situation for sailors.
It looks tempting to run into Ocracoke and Hatteras Inlets if the weather turns suddenly, but should be resisted if at all possible as Diamond Shoals is an area that is constantly shifting and changing and you have no real way of being able to easily navigate in poor conditions. Interestingly enough, current Sailing guides for the Cape Hatteras area say that nine out of ten passages are uneventful. This information does not sound too comforting even sitting on dry land! Hence it is easy to see why this area is known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic"
David Stick writes in his book, "Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast" the following: "You can stand on Cape Point at Hatteras on a stormy day and watch two oceans come together in an awesome display of savage fury; for there at the Point the northbound Gulf Stream and the cold currents coming down from the Arctic run head-on into each other, tossing their spumy spray a hundred feet or better into the air and dropping sand and shells and sea life at the point of impact. Thus is formed the dreaded Diamond Shoals, its fang-like shifting sand bars pushing seaward to snare the unwary mariner. Seafaring men call it the Graveyard of the Atlantic."
The northbound current of the Gulf Stream allowed ships to coast up the Atlantic Seaboard on their way to Spain from the south. Southbound ships followed the colder southbound current of the Labrador coming down from the Artic. These made excellent mariner highways except that at Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream flows very close to the shoreline and forces the southbound traffic into a very small channel around Diamond Shoals.
Even thought these areas were well marked on mariner charts, the shifing sands of Diamond Shoals and the strong offshore winds blew many ships too close to shore where they were sunk. With little or no warning about incoming bad weather conditions, the Diamond Shoals claimed many victims.
In 1794, Congress saw the danger to Atlantic shipping due to all of the ships foundering off of the coast in this area and approved the construction of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
With the many shipwrecks there arose a great need for rescuers for the sailors and passengers in distress. Many sailors were saved by brave local volunteers. "Surfmen" would patrol the beaches and risk their lives to save sailors and passengers of ships in distress. Then in 1873 Congress established the United States Life Saving Service, whose history of fearless heroism and bravery are legendary.
Today, there are few shipwrecks but mariners are still cautions when passing through what we know as "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."