Shiver Me Timbers

By Josh Bishop

Avast! There be great tours on the horizon, me hearties

Legend has it that Captain Blackbeard, one of the most notorious pirates to plunder the Caribbean and America’s Atlantic coast, had a habit of tying cannon fuses or strips of hemp into his long black beard. He’d tuck additional pieces into his tricorne hat, and whenever he did piratey things — pillaging, murdering, and attacking merchant ships — he’d set his facial accessories on fire. With smoke billowing out of his beard, a cutlass in one hand, and several pistols strapped to his chest, Blackbeard was the image of the Devil himself.

This isn’t the only legend about Captain Blackbeard. Pirate lore tells us he had 14 wives, made a habit of shooting his own crewmembers, captured more than 50 ships, and left buried treasure and the skeletons of his men dotted along the beaches of the Southeastern United States. He was everything you could ask for in a pirate. Arrgh.

Not all of it is true, of course. In fact, despite his carefully cultivated reputation for barbarism and cruelty, many historians doubt that he ever actually killed anyone.

In any case, there is no doubt that Blackbeard was real. His name was Edward Teach, and he became a pirate at some point after 1713. Blackbeard’s career really took off in 1717, when he captured a French slave ship in the Eastern Caribbean and converted it into his most famous ship, the 40-gun Queen Anne’s Revenge. He wintered in the Caribbean before heading north to South Carolina with an impressive fleet of four ships and more than 300 pirates under his command.

Landlubber’s adventure

Imagine what it felt like to be part of Blackbeard’s crew as they sailed the high seas, drinking rum and looking for their next prey. Even today, groups can re-live the experience (minus the scurvy, the cabin fever, and walking the plank) on an 85-foot pirate ship off the Florida shore. Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise (www.piratecruise.net) offers two-hour sightseeing tours out of Panama City Beach. Captain “Fearless” Phil may not be Blackbeard, but that’s probably a good thing.

Fearless Phil and his crew take a shipload of guests near Shell Island on a trip filled with dolphin and other wildlife sightings, sword fighting, pirate booty, and the quintessential pirate drink, rum (or other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages). All this with the skull-and-crossbones of the Jolly Roger flapping in the blue skies above.

Beneath another Jolly Roger, Blackbeard bullied his way up the Atlantic coast in May 1718. Destination: Charleston, S.C. Blackbeard and his crew blockaded the port for a week —this is where things begin to get interesting — and terrorized the merchant ships that were docked at the Colonial city, boarding and plundering at least five of them. Several locals were held hostage until Blackbeard received the chest of medicines he demanded as ransom. The pirates released the naked prisoners and fled north, where they ran aground at Beaufort Inlet, N.C.

There have been accusations that Blackbeard ran two ships — Queen Anne’s Revenge and Adventure — aground as a deliberate attempt to split up the large pirate band, beach or maroon most of them, and escape with the treasure and a small, handpicked crew. Still, the loss of his flagship — and one of the largest pirate ships to ever sail the seas — could not have been easy for the pirate captain.

It wouldn’t remain lost forever. In 1997, a team of divers located a wreck believed to be Queen Anne’s Revenge in the shallow waters off the North Carolina shore. There isn’t definitive proof yet, but there seems to be enough evidence that it’s fairly safe to conclude that the wreckage is the remains of Blackbeard’s ship. A selection of the recovered artifacts can be seen at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Among the items found at the wreck are several cannons, a one-foot-tall bronze bell, a brass blunderbuss barrel, an English sounding weight for determining water depth, and several iron cannonballs. No chest filled with gold doubloons so far, but it’s still a treasure trove of pirate-era artifacts.

Plundering Virginia

After abandoning his beached ships, Blackbeard went to Bath Town, the then-capital of North Carolina, where he received a pardon from the governor and set off in a new, supposedly law-abiding direction: north. After a brief hiatus from his piracy, he started robbing ships off the Virginia coast and Chesapeake Bay. In response, Virginia’s Governor Alexander Spotswood sent two small ships under the command of the Royal Navy’s Lieutenant Robert Maynard to hunt down and capture or kill Blackbeard. They left Hampton, Va., in November 1718.

When the navy caught up with the pirate, the fighting was fierce. Shots and blows were traded by both parties in a dramatic battle that culminated when Blackbeard and his men boarded Maynard’s ship. By the time the smoke cleared, 15 of Blackbeard’s men were captured, and Blackbeard himself died a true pirate’s death: he was shot five times, stabbed more than 20 times, and decapitated. According to legend, his headless body sprang overboard and swam around the ship several times before giving up and sinking to the bottom, which probably didn’t happen. But this certainly did happen: his head was hung from the front of Maynard’s ship and later placed on a stake at the mouth of the Hampton River.

Hampton celebrates the city’s central role in the story of Blackbeard with its annual Blackbeard Pirate Festival. During the festival, groups can see authentically dressed pirates wandering the streets and engaging in street skirmishes with the militia. Among the many events — from treasure hunts to live sea shanty performances — are tall ships and full-scale sea battles in Hampton Harbor, including the highlight of the festival, a re-enactment of Blackbeard’s battle. After the battle, the pirate’s head is presented to the governor at a special ceremony, followed by a funeral parade through the city. It’s quite the way to celebrate the end of a pirate’s life.

Other sea-faring adventures

Of course, Blackbeard wasn’t the only pirate to sail the seven seas. Others were famous — Black Bart and Calico Jack come to mind — while many more were nameless scallywags lost to history and legend. Add any number of fictional pirates, from Treasure Island’s Long John Silver to Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow, and the fantastical image of pirating is complete.

While it may not be true to life, Florida’s Pirate Dinner Adventure capitalizes on the myth and romanticism of pirates in an energetic and adventurous, interactive dining experience. Groups can set sail on the high seas aboard a pirate ship for swashbuckling thrills combined with the perfect blend of comedy, romance, action, and adventure. The show features finely choreographed sword fighting and daring acrobatic feats on an authentically re-created Spanish galleon.

In fact, there are pirate-themed destinations and activities throughout the Southeast, where real pirates once traveled the shorelines, beaches, and waves. Turn the page for five suggestions on where to begin.•

This article was published in the Winter 2007 Northeast issue of Group Tour Magazine. To see the full archived magazine, click here. Click here to print a pdf.