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North Carolina has a reputation of being the Graveyard of the Atlantic. There are estimates approaching 3,000 shipwrecks around the islands, going back to the first English settlements in America.

We’re a little fond of one of those 3,000 “stories.” Her name is Caribsea. 

Cargo steamer


Completed in November 1919 at McDougall-Duluth Shipbuilding Co., Duluth, MN, the Caribsea originally took to the water for U.S. Shipping Board, Washington, D.C., as the Lake Flattery. Three years later she was renamed Buenaventura for Panama Rail Road Co. Inc., and in 1940 received her final name when she was sold to Stockard SS Co. of New York.

Classified as an ocean-going cargo ship, Caribsea was one of fifteen identical Laker-style steamships and had a capacity of 2,609 tons. On her last journey, she was carrying 3,600 tons of ore, a thousand tons more than her stated maximum. Did this extra weight cause the Caribsea to sink so quickly that there was no time to launch lifeboats, damning everyone who was not on deck to go down with the ship?

torpedo Attack

Wednesday, March 11, 1942

Early in the morning of Wednesday, March 11, 1942, the Caribsea was steaming up the North Carolina coast on her way to Norfolk, VA, from Santiago, Cuba, with a full cargo of highly combustible manganese ore in her cargo holds. At the Navy’s request, Master Nicholas Manolis had reduced the ship’s speed to four knots so that the freighter would approach Cape Hatteras, where U-boats were known to be active, after daylight.

Suddenly, about 11 miles east of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, the ship was struck on the starboard side at #2 hold by a torpedo fired from U-158, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Erwin Rostin. Weighted by her heavy cargo, the Caribsea rapidly settled by her head and then was shaken by a boiler explosion.

Three minutes later, only the masts were still visible. The 28 men on board had no time to send distress signals or launch lifeboats, and only the seven men on deck or in the wheelhouse managed to climb onto two rafts that had floated free. Later, they watched the U-boat that had sunk their ship passing within 100 yards.

After ten hours in the water, the survivors managed to attract the attention of a passing freighter, the Norlindo, which picked up the two officers and five crewmen and took them to safety at Cape Henry.

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Right: Jim Gaskill /// Above: Pamlico Inn,
Jim Baughm Gaskill’s birthplace

Seaman Jim Baugham Gaskill

The story that follows might be true . . . or it might not be. But in either case, it makes for a good story!

In mid-March 1942, a rectangular object washed up on the sand at the south end of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Chris Gaskill paused in his Saturday stroll along the beach to pick up the object and examine it. To his puzzlement, and then concern, he saw that it was his cousin Jim Baugham Gaskill’s third mate’s license. Truncating his walk, Chris returned to the village and notified Jim’s family and the Coast Guard of his find.

The next day, an employee at the Pamlico Inn, which had been owned and managed by Jim Gaskell’s father, Bill, noticed a floating piece of wreckage banging against the inn’s pier. The timber was fished from the water and revealed whence it came: on it was etched the name “SS Caribsea.”

Now Jim Baugham Gaskill’s family and friends knew for certain his tragic fate.

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WWI and WWII off the Coast of
North Carolina

From January through July of 1942, German U-boats sank ships off the American east coast with relative impunity. This American Theatre of World War II was the closest area of conflict to the continental United States. Shipping lanes in the Gulf Stream made for easy targets.

Video (3:28) (Credit: monitor.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/)

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The Wreck

Since her sinking in the early years of World War II, the Caribsea has been settled on a flat, sandy plain on the continental shelf, 90 feet below the Atlantic swells, her bow pointing south toward Cuba.

Through the course of the decades, the weight of the windlass has collapsed the metal decks, which have become thin and rotten. The starboard anchor has fallen to the sand, and the port anchor has been buried by debris.

Schools of spadefish, baitfish, mackerel, and amberjacks swim through her disintegrating frame, stingray and cobia nose around her barnacled boilers and bollards, while sand tiger sharks patrol above.

Photo Gallery

Sharks of Caribsea

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