“Here was an end of that courageous brute, who might have passed in the world or a hero had he been employed in a good cause.”
—Charles Johnson on Blackbeard, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, 1724
BEAUFORT, NC—Mudbone’s wife encounters the same dilemma each August when she visits Beaufort.
“Back in Greensboro, at least I can pick him out of a crowd,” she says. “But this weekend? Forget about it.”
“Well, I don’t always wear it,” Mudbone adds quietly. “Not when I’m working on windows, for example. But otherwise, yes. All the time.”
Mudbone, for the permanent record, should be easy to pick out of any crowd. His default wardrobe is a many-layered 1740s pirate outfit, much of his own making or else his wife’s. His commitment to detail and historical fidelity is remarkable. One of his pistols, each of which he carved and welded himself, has a retractable mini-bayonet that looks like a grilling skewer. He has blades of varying sizes, a musket slung over his back, and a leather tricorn hat plumed with a three-foot feather. He has hewn several of his blade-handles out of elk antler. He is, to understate the case, a spectacle.
One weekend each August, however, Mudbone blends as though camouflaged into the hundred-plus temporally displaced privateers and scallywags who invade the two main strips in downtown Beaufort for the town’s annual Pirate Invasion. Two things strike you immediately as you enter Beaufort. The first is that anyone under twelve or over forty is dressed, quite convincingly, as a pirate. The other is that all the women insist that you call them “wenches,” an epithet they bestow with lip-smacking pleasure on one another, as often and publicly as possible.
Mudbone does not refer to his wife as a “wench.” In fact, he speaks very little, allowing his weathered face (as though baked by the sun and salt water!) to answer whatever questions his voluble wife does not.
“We got started at a Ron Paul convention, actually,” Mrs. Mudbone tells me. “Mudbone used to dress like Davey Crockett, head-to-toe, as a sort of statement, you know? And then I bought him that gorgeous leather tricorn—which isn’t a sailor’s hat really, or wasn’t at the time, in that century—and people would approach him on the street and ask, ‘Are you a pirate?’”
Mudbone laughs. “Eventually, it started to sound like a great idea.”
“He’s incredibly shy when he isn’t in costume,” his wife confides. “Good luck getting two words out of him. But in the costume, he just transforms. He becomes just a total ham.”
Hamming is one of the prerequisites for participating in the Pirate Invasion, an event that celebrates the town’s verifiably rich history of buccaneering. The inlet of Beaufort was a popular rest stop for pirates on their way from the West Indies to Norfolk, a happy place to guzzle grog for three days after (say) barricading the Port of Charleston. Two particular events catalyze the annual tradition. In 1747, a crew of Spanish privateers pursued three successive raids on the town. The first time, they stole some very nice ships. The second time, they invaded the town. The third time, a coalition of trained militia-men and civilian farmers drove the Spaniards out of the town, in the process recapturing certain important vessels.
Perhaps more interesting, this little slice of the Carolina coast marks the final resting place of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, who was assassinated by an agent of the governor of Virginia in one of the port’s tributaries. (His head was bandied about on a spike, but the rest of his bones are said to remain, either underwater or underground, right nearby.)
Beaufort is one of those quiet and beautiful port towns that has largely dodged despoliation-by-development. Its citizens have no interest in seeing their home become either Myrtle Beach or Boca Raton. Many of the natives I met are fourth-generation residents who can trace their local ancestors back two hundred years or more, and you sense a protective vibe, especially when citizens mutter about the handful of vacation houses that have risen from the sea-grass in the last five years.
Still, they are happy to rent the town’s numerous and well-preserved eighteenth-century buildings as partitioned bed-and-breakfasts, to allow the very occasional booze cruise, and to host this strange mix of costume-fanciers, armchair history geeks, and professors from the maritime history department at nearby East Carolina University. Some come from adjacent municipalities like New Bern or Morehead City; many from the Piedmont area of Carolina, some four and a half hours inland. Yet others visit Beaufort as one stop (if a very special one) on the pirate-reenactment circuit, a very real tour which, for east coasters, stretches from the port of Manhattan to the Florida Keys. It’s like a roving Colonial Williamsburg, except with fewer ceramics because they break so easily.
Mudbone doesn’t mess with other festivals, in part because few have the historical pedigree of Beaufort.
“It’s not really about dressing up,” he says quietly. “It’s about the past, and the ghosts.”
Mudbone is not the only one to obsess over period-appropriate homespun garb. Most of the pirates I meet (there are well over one hundred) have made their own waistcoats and breeches, with cuts designed to the specifications of the decade—the 1740s for most, or 1718 for Blackbeard freaks. The women, for their part, have cut marvelous dresses worn more often than not beneath a corset. Many of the women carry whips and demonstrate their skills with deafening cracks every few minutes. A smaller contingent, perhaps six men in total, all prodigiously bearded, cross-dress for both days of the extravaganza. One particular burlesque show looked like a slash-fiction reboot of Treasure Island, with a few more can-can kicks.
One man dresses as Blackbeard himself; another, an apparent devotee of human-growth hormone, goes by Mantise Sevalle. Nasty Nate plays the squeezebox in The Rusty Cutlass, a locally beloved pirate band that provides the score for the weekend. (They have a permanent gig at DisneyWorld but seem excited to escape Orlando, if only for a few days.) A surprising number of the male pirates call themselves “Captain”: Captain John Sterling, Captain De’Vil, Captain Hornsworth, and so on. Too many chiefs, too few Indians; one wonders who does the actual work of seamanship.
The town’s “historic grounds” (which the pirates refer to as Restoration Village) is home to various municipal structures of the eighteenth century: the apothecary, the courthouse, the jail, a pub that should really be called The Leaky Flagon, an ad hoc outdoor beer stand called The Soused Wench, a scaffold for hanging miscreants (about which more anon), and at least two pillories where parents take glee in placing their children. The youthful contingent receives schooling in period sword-combat, and the Wenches of Syren’s Call perform a sword dance onstage—a buccaneer’s version of belly-dancing that requires women to balance cutlasses on their hip-bones. A grassy bank is given over to the pirate encampment, which includes sleeping tents, flagons of rum, and a pirate surgeon who bears an uncanny resemblance to the poet John Berryman. He wears a peg-leg himself, by necessity, and is no more squeamish about showing it to you than he is about explaining, in hideous detail, the amputation process of three centuries ago—the slicing of muscle and bone and the tools associated with each.
The real action, of course, is on the waterfront, where the Ada Marie and the Meka II float alongside one another. Ada is a converted oyster sloop, overseen in part by maritime historians from ECU. Meka II, the larger vessel, belongs to Captain Horatio Sinbad (not an alias), the elder statesman of the annual festivities, who leads the loud and merciless invasion-by-sea on Saturday. That morning, I meet a round- and rosy-faced child of perhaps eleven or twelve, dressed like a proper pirate but refusing to wear “one of those painted mustaches.”
“Tell me, pirate, do you have a name?” I ask.
“The Typhoon Kid,” he responds without a beat. His eyes scan the harbor. He tells me he’ll be manning a cannon on the Meka II. I promise him I’ll hold onto my hat.
On the Saturday, bleachers appear on the patch of grass facing what in Blackbeard’s day was known as “Topsail Inlet.” The Ada Marie and Meka II lead the flotilla, which also includes antiquated, motorless sailboats, a handful of rowboats, and one sparkling-white whaler’s boat, beautifully restored. From shore, the cannon fire is deafening, and those kids who aren’t whining from heatstroke are pleased beyond measure. One of the rowboats boasts a cannon whose blasts sound twice as loud as those of its larger counterparts—so loud, in fact, that each time they fire, they set off the car alarm of one poor Nissan parked across the street. It is a moment of temporal and technological disjunction, a trivial but disorienting triumph of past over present, analog over electric. Each time the cannon fire rips through the thick noontime air, an infant in crocs besides me squeals, for a moment the happiest girl on the eastern seaboard.
She squeals again when the pirates make land and one of the bearded cross-dressers (now apparently a militia-member) fights off a pair of marauders with naught but a massive copper frying pan, marking the militia’s final victory. One of the defeated invaders will be hanged ninety minutes later on the green at Restoration Village, his corpse then cut down and transferred to a coffin, which militia-members nail shut—dark material for the little ones, but then the little ones keep trying to pick your pocket, so perhaps they’re already a lost generation.
The man who keeps everything running, the spiritual leader and institutional memory of the Beaufort pirate tradition, is Horatio Sinbad himself, a sixty-something Ohio native who has spent most of his waking life building boats and studying the history of maritime miscreants, and who now runs a carpentry shop in Beaufort—in part because he loves the craft, in part because he needs a shop to maintain the Meka II. Unlike his lieutenants, Sinbad has sufficient confidence in his persona to break character when necessary, a blessing for anyone who tries to interview him. After his flotilla is defeated, Sinbad invites me aboard the Meka II, where we repair to his captain’s quarters below deck. The walls are lined with books, from grammatical dictionaries to historical fiction to classics of the American canon. In one corner sits a television surrounded by Game of Thrones DVDs.
Sinbad grew up in Medina, OH. His father was an engineer but no sailor, though Sinbad identifies these paternal genes as the roots of his own facility at drafting, carpentry, and especially the task of building long, anachronistic boats.
“I saw the 1950 film of Treasure Island,” Sinbad tells me. “Jack Hawkins, all of them—I knew then the kind of life I wanted, so I taught myself to swim and before long I was reading Huckleberry Finn and building rafts with friends. We’d float maybe twenty, thirty miles downstream until my parents were really freaked out.”
Sinbad decided in his tweens that aggressive entrepreneurship was his only chance at having the life he wanted; he turned a straightforward paper route into a $60-per-week concern and promptly became “the richest kid in the neighborhood.”
The captain pauses; stares me dead in the eyes. “I had a very troubled childhood.” (NB: This is not a comforting thing to hear when you’re alone below deck with a self-styled pirate.)
“Are we talking depression? Boozing?”
A laugh. “No, no booze at all. But I didn’t really mesh with my peer group. I always wanted to be doing things—let’s go sailing, let’s build a boat. Most of the kids just wanted to hang around in the diner or show off their new cars. I didn’t, and I don’t, understand that. Not that I begrudge anyone his friends, but that shouldn’t be your whole life.”
So how did he deal?
“Well when I was seventeen, with one semester left at school, I sold my paper route, ran away one night, and ended up in the West Indies. Hitchhiked to Tennessee, then to Miami, then the islands.”
Sinbad found boat work on St. Lucia, doing repairs and remodeling and taking German plutocrats on day-cruises around the island. During his two-and-a-half-year stint there, Sinbad made nice with his black coworkers, who came to identify the young captain with an illustration of Sinbad the pirate that graced the cover of a book of legends.
“I had long hair, and I was a white guy,” Sinbad says now. “That’s probably the extent of the resemblance. And of course I was a passionate admirer of Horatio Nelson, and I loved the tales of Horatio Hornblower, so eventually I added the first name.”
Sometime in the ‘70s, Sinbad officially changed his name. He doesn’t talk about the one he was born with.
Eventually, Sinbad had the cash to build his own boat, the Meka I, which he and his wife sailed all over the southeast until a hurricane capsized them 200 miles off the U.S. Coast. “There was an Irish fishing vessel that came along and picked us up, after we floated for however long,” he says with no hint of drama.
At last, Sinbad answers my question about the tradition’s decade-and-a-half hiatus between the early ‘80s and the late ‘90s.
“That last year, people got plastered very early. They were throwing ice at us, cocktail glasses, all kinds of things. It took the coast guard twelve hours to clear the inlet. After that, they closed it down for a good while.”
This year’s festival, for better or worse, was far more civilized, at least by day. (Watching pirates in full regalia drain tankards in the seaside bars while singing “Whiskey in the Jar” is actually a lot more fun than it sounds.) Horatio directs my attention to a framed Privateer’s License, signed by a former governor of North Carolina and also by Ronald Reagan. (Ford and Carter both waffled and ultimately declined to sign a similar document.)
As the captain takes a bite of cold pizza—the lunch I have interrupted—tiny footsteps come down from the topdeck. It is, of course, the Typhoon Kid.
“Captain,” he salutes. “Do you want another slice of pizza, for one?”
Sinbad says thanks, but no.
“OK. And for two, can we go ashore?”
“Is everything done?”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Stick together now—no fights, no drinking.”
The Kid protests. “I’m not gonna hit anybody!”
“He didn’t say he wouldn’t drink,” I note.
“So I can drink alcohol?”
“You can drink all that root beer you want,” Sinbad says.
The Kid mutters for my benefit. “God, I gotta find some alcohol.” He ambles back on deck.
“I can see you’ve been a great influence on these kids.”
“Well, they know the rules,” Sinbad smiles. “That young fella has been with me four, five years.”
He leans back in his chair, gazing without aim at the crossbeams of the ceiling.
“Crews like us—well, we have to stick together.”
Ted Scheinman is a doctoral candidate and culture reporter based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His essays, reporting, and criticism have appeared in Slate, the Oxford American, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter at @Ted_Scheinman.