A curious, crusty piece of metal protrudes above the ocean surface off the Corolla shoreline in sight of posh beach homes.
It is part of the former USS State of Georgia, a side-paddle steam ship that captured blockade runners for the Union during the Civil War and towed ironclads to battle. It took a direct hit from a Confederate cannonball in the process.
Diver Marc Corbett has explored the wreck, described its remains and researched the vessel’s little-known heroic history. And he’s just getting started.
Corbett, 54, is on a quest to find and research every wreck off the coast of the Outer Banks up to 400 feet under the surface and write a book on his findings. He’s dived on 59 of the approximately 90 wrecks he knows of from Corolla to Ocracoke.
In the process of his work, Corbett has identified formerly unknown wrecks like the SS Mountaineer, a wooden hulled steam ship that wrecked off Kitty Hawk in 1852. It was known back in the day as the Wink’s wreck because it sat offshore from the store by that name.
There also was the SS Volunteer, an iron hulled steamer that ran aground off Kill Devil Hills in 1873.
He recalled how he found something below the surface that looked a lot like the boiler of the SS Oriental, a well-known wreck that has parts sticking above the ocean surface across from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. But it wasn’t the Oriental.
“When you first identify a ship, it’s like a major head rush,” Corbett said. “Until you tell somebody, you’re the only person on Earth that knows about it.”
There are plenty of wrecks for Corbett to find. The Outer Banks coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, where hundreds of ships have sunk or beached after losing the battle with hurricanes, shoals, treacherous currents or German U-boats.
The State of Georgia, for instance, ran aground in a storm after the war. By then, it had been sold to a private owner and renamed the SS Andrew Johnson.
“The tired old war horse had served most of the war,” Corbett wrote about the wreck. “It would probably be tough to find a vessel that did more work during the Civil War.”
The key to finding wrecks is research, Corbett said. He digs into documents in the National Archives and the Outer Banks History Center. He scours old newspaper accounts, Civil War records and log books from the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
“Marc Corbett is that kind of individual whose research and history is of great value,” said Joe Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, including the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. “It is very, very useful.”
Corbett works as a mate on the Lion’s Paw, a boat used by Dive Hatteras, a charter business that takes customers to explore shipwrecks. He has dived on wrecks in water as shallow as 5 feet and as deep as 257 feet.
To find ships, Corbett uses a sonar system to scan the bottom in locations where records show they went down. If he sees a large mass in the right spot, it’s worth a dive.
“Sometimes you only need a couple of pieces to identify a ship if it’s in the right place,” he said.
The best-preserved wrecks are those in deep water. Nearer to shore, the wave action batters the remains and covers them with sand more quickly.
The E.M. Clark, a large ship in 250 feet of water, is almost fully intact, lying on its side. The tanker, which is almost two football fields long, was carrying heating oil in 1943 when a German U-boat sunk it off the coast of Hatteras. All but one of the 41 crew members survived.
He has also dived on war ships.
“These ships are enormous,” he said. “It’s amazing when you go down there and see big deck guns staring at you.”
Metal ships tend to last longer while wood ships deteriorate more quickly and are more easily moved by currents. The Navy used to break up sunken ships by raking over them with a large cable attached to two vessels on either side of it. It was called wire dragging, Corbett said.
Most shipwrecks have already been salvaged by locals or by the owners.
“I’ve never found anything worth a lot of money,” he said. “Anything of value has already been taken.”
Corbett is determined to find the Mirlo, a British tanker that sank off Rodanthe after striking a German mine in August 1918. The crew of the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station rescued 42 of 52 crew members, repeatedly taking their boat into flames on the water. It is considered one of the greatest rescues in Coast Guard history.
Descriptions of where it sank cover a large area. Corbett and his partners have searched for it going back and forth for hours over the water.
“It’s like mowing the grass,” he said.
While the number of wrecks off the Outer Banks is well publicized, few know the history behind them, Corbett said.
He added that he feels he’s fighting the clock if the world is ever to know what lay beneath the water a few hundred feet from the tourist-filled beaches.
“These wrecks are falling apart, they must be documented,” he said. “One of these days, they will nothing but a rust scour on the bottom.”
Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, email@example.com
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.