The strange history of stuff that's washed up on the Outer Banks
By JEFF HAMPTON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 13, 2020
NAGS HEAD, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — From a bagged body to unexploded ordnance to parts of a spaceship, almost anything could show up on an Outer Banks beach.
About the only thing not discovered is Blackbeard's treasure.
There's still a chance, thanks to the volatility of elements pounding these beaches.
The narrow strand of sand juts into the ocean where the Gulf Stream flows from the south and the Labrador Current meets it from the north. The currents drag most anything with them.
The waves crest higher here than anywhere else on the East Coast, often with debris surfing along the way. Frequent winter storms pounding from the northeast erode the beaches and expose hidden odds and ends.
"That's when you have spikes in stuff showing up," said Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant.
Plenty of old coins have appeared. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has a coin collection from avid beachcomber William Sell, including bronze pieces from Egypt that date to about 200 B.C. The experts don't know how it got all the way to the Outer Banks. Possibly a shipwreck.
A harmless training mine was found off Salvo last year, and three other similar pieces of ordnance — some from World War II — were found along the Outer Banks in 2017.
Ships have struck the shoals off the coast for centuries, giving the area the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. Remains of dozens of shipwrecks have washed ashore, their dark ribs still jutting from the sand. Once in a while, a squall uncovers a wreck not seen before.
In 2008, a November storm exposed the timbers of a ship from the 1600s, possibly the oldest of all the roughly 5,000 known wrecks along the Outer Banks. The discovery got widespread attention.
Shipwrecks typically stay where they lie, getting exposed occasionally, then disappearing again under the sand. The old ship had probably remained in the same spot since it crashed against the shores here nearly 400 years ago, according to shipwreck archaeologists at the time.
Lighter things come with the currents, Rogers said.
In 2006, crowds gathered in Frisco to get their share of thousands of bags of Doritos spilled from a container that fell from a passing ship in bad weather. The news spread around the world.
Three years ago, a boat made of metal pipe, angle iron, wood and pieces of rigid foam came ashore unoccupied in Avon. It carried a store of supplies including bottles of water, sardines, and fuel. It was determined that it was made by Cuban refugees and carried northward by the Gulf Stream after the sailors were done with it. It was considered an engineering marvel, said Outer Banks businessman and historian Danny Couch.
"Because we stick so far out it's not unusual for stuff to come up here," he said.
In 2017, it was a banner year for unusual discoveries.
A piece of a SpaceX rocket was spotted lying on the beach near Hatteras Village by Outer Banks photographer Erin Everlee. It was likely part of the nose cone intentionally jettisoned after take-off from a launch site in Florida. It floated north on the Gulf Stream.
Everlee was walking on the beach with her husband when she saw it. It was a big mystery at first. After some discussion with others and an internet search, they determined it must be part of a space-bound craft. Cape Hatteras National Seashore and SpaceX confirmed its origin.
"That was so cool," Everlee said. "I was really excited."
That same year, beachcombers found dozens of smelly plastic disks about 2 feet in diameter lying in Corolla and Kill Devil Hills. They discovered later that the disks had come from a Navy ship. The Navy compacts trash into circles and disposes of them properly later. An investigation showed two sailors had thrown them overboard in violation of Navy regulations.
Also in 2017, the well-dressed body of a man came ashore in Nags Head in a partially torn body bag. Turns out, he had likely been intentionally buried at sea, but the Outer Banks elements had brought him back from his watery grave. The police chief retrieved him and sent him to the state medical examiner.
Last winter, three dead whales washed ashore in two weeks on the Outer Banks raising concerns of increased ship strikes. Dead whales often draw crowds of onlookers as biologists dissect them for information on the cause of death. The smell wafts downwind for miles.
Blackbeard sailed off the Outer Banks in the early 1700s and was killed just off Ocracoke. He might have stashed a chest of treasure under the Outer Banks sand.
Somewhere it awaits a storm to uncover it.