"Killin's, burnin's, lootin's, but larceny above all else."
-- Capt. Ned Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard (Blackbeard the Pirate, 1952)
TAKE AWAY THE MURDERIN', the thievin' and the keelhaulin', and you might call Capt. Fletcher T. Moone a modern-day Ned Teach. It was 21 years ago this summer that Moone -- by day, a Kensington finance specialist named Brad Howard -- gathered a passel o' mates, formed a maritime music combo called the Pyrates Royale, and started playin' private parties all around the Chesapeake.
"Back then, it was sort of an esoteric interest," he says.
All that has changed. Four years ago, the Disney Co. "turned a theme-park ride into a movie," in Howard's words, putting out the first in its Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Curse of the Black Pearl, starring Johnny Depp as the bug-eyed but wily Capt. Jack Sparrow. The film made $653 million worldwide and started a sensation. Now, it seems, pirates be everywhere.
On May 25, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the third in the Disney series, opens in theaters nationwide. Pirate wannabes are hitting pirate festivals coast to coast. Kmart and Target can't keep pirate swag on their shelves. And on May 31, CBS launches a new reality TV series, Pirate Master, on which 16 contestants are to spend 33 days trolling for $500,000 in buried treasure in the Caribbean.
As for Howard, his alter ego's swagger is as grand as ever. The Pyrates Royale, the area's "go-to" pirate band, will record their fifth CD this summer. Captain Moone even oversaw a pirate-themed wedding last weekend (his fifth), readin' "Arrrr-ticles of Matrimony" to a Maryland couple aboard a clipper ship on the Chesapeake's high seas. "It were a fine time indeed," he says with a merry snarl. "Pretty as paint."
He's hardly shocked that the rest of the world has caught up with him. Deep down, he says, "even the most mild-mannered person wants to sing out, to be heard, to make a stand and be seen. What does Jack Sparrow [Depp's character] sing? 'A pirate's life for me?' It's fittin' and proper, I say, har-har, a healthy thing indeed."
A merry life, and a short one, shall be my motto.
-- Capt. Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722)
Don't let John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur fool you. Twelve years back, he and a matey, Alan "Cap'n Slappy" Summers, had just finished a racquetball game in their native Oregon when for no good reason either can remember, they both started talkin' like pyrates.
"It started with what we like to call The Five A's," says Baur. "Aye, aye-aye, avast, ahoy, and arrgh. We'll save the definitions for later. But arrgh! It went from there."
The two invented International Talk Like a Pirate Day, settin' aside Sept. 19, also for no especially good reason, as "the one day a year you can talk like a pirate and not be totally insane." It was a private joke among friends till 2002, when they decided, on a sudden "whim piratical," to contact syndicated humorist Dave Barry and share their creation.
Barry mentioned them in a column, journalists started calling from ports as far afield as Ireland and Australia, and the pair became piratical celebrities. Just last month, they served as grand marshals of the first-ever "PyrateCon," a convention of 600 pirate fantasists, historians and merchants from around the world that descended on New Orleans. "It was the first pirate invasion of the French Quarter since the War of 1812," says organizer Rudy Arceo, director of the International Pirate Society.
To Baur and Summers, "Talk Like a Pirate Day" is swashbucklin' slapstick, a chance to liberate their linguistic ids. Their popular Web site, talklikeapirate.com, suggests useful phrases (try "avast, ye scurvy scum!" to hail a foe, "avast, ye salty sea-dog!" for a respected elder), provides a pirate-speak video (instead of "what a lovely morning!" try "the day, 'tis ripe for bloodshed; be ye afeard?"), and lists actual Talk Like a Pirate Day festivities from North Carolina to New Zealand.
The humor has roots in a long tradition of pirate films, from Douglas Fairbanks' silent The Black Swan (1925) all the way through Depp's Dead Man's Chest (2006), most of which educate about the real lives of pirates while failing to take themselves altogether seriously. Take Blackbeard, at least as portrayed with eye-rollin' glee by actor Robert Newton, a pirate-fan favorite, in the 1952 camp classic.
While pilfering treasure, the larcenous brute finds his own crew trying to steal the booty from him. "Throw 'em in the hold and let 'em suffercate, the thievin' scum!" he cries without a trace of irony.
But like gold doubloons beneath the water, serious themes underlie the comedy. When their "day" burst on the scene, Baur says, he learned there were "nests o' pirates" all over the place. "It's just that we all thought we were the only ones. Turns out we weren't," he says.
"Blow me down for an old sea calf!" he exclaims. "Pirates ha' got us a reputation as bright as the buttons on an admiral's coat [these days], and no mistake! Why, ye ask? There be as many reasons as there be stars to steer by." Be yer own master
Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?
-- Steve Jobs
If there weren't truth in the lore of pirates, they'd never be as popular as the are now. And there's never been a lack of scholars, in or outside the academy, to chronicle "the sweet trade."
The most influential may have been Charles Johnson, a mysterious seafarer who published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1724.
Historians still can't trace exactly who he was, but Johnson's 600-page tome contains such vivid accounts of the Golden Age of Piracy (generally seen as 1690-1730) -- including portraits of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and other legends -- that few doubt its authenticity.
Among other things, Johnson gives us a Blackbeard ("that couragious Brute") who sometimes shot his own men for sport, who wove fuses into his huge beard and lit them during battle, and who was so widely feared that he blockaded the well-trafficked port of Charleston, S.C., for a full week simply by unfurling his colors.
In a broader sense, Johnson chronicled men and women (yes, there were female pirates, including woman-in-disguise legend Mary Read) who represented some of the first experiments in New World democracy. The Disney films turn frequently on a so-called "Pirate Code," and pirates did, in fact, generally observe certain rules of behavior: No killing unless it's necessary, for instance; pirate crews don't bother other pirate crews; and "no smokin' in the hold" (too much gunpowder).
More important, though piracy was dangerous, it offered commoners a chance to control their destiny at a time when upward social mobility was almost unheard of. "During battle, the captain ruled," says Cliff Long, editor of Pirates Magazine, a glossy quarterly based in Baltimore. "Other than that, crew members voted on just about everything."
Pirates even practiced an early form of worker's compensation. "If you lost an eye or a leg, you might be made a cook, but you'd still get your share of any booty," Long says. "If you were right-handed and lost your right hand, you got an even larger share."
Some of today's pirate fans "just want to put on the clothes, party and say, 'Aarggh!'" says Gail Seliger, a veteran pirate re-enactor from California who co-wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates in 2006, "Some get into the history and really want to impart the information," from how pirates tied knots to how they tortured victims. (No record exists of plank-walking, for instance, though plenty of pirates left enemies to die on lonely sand spits).
For history buffs, no detail's too small. One argument that still rages is over spelling: is it "pyrate" (seafarers, mostly illiterate, tended to spell phonetically) or "pirate" (an Americanization)? Seliger sweeps even that aside: "The original word, in Greek, is peirates, which means 'one who attacks,'" she says. "Did you know the ancient Greeks used pirates to collect taxes?"
In coastal regions around America, especially in the Southeast, pirate fans can find their own history reflected in that of the great buccaneers. Teach plied his trade off the Carolina and Virginia coasts. After he was finally killed in 1718 -- and it took a reported 20 sword wounds and five bullets to bring him down -- his head was mounted on a spike in Hampton, Va., now the site of an annual Blackbeard Festival (June 2 and 3 this year). In the early 19th century, Baltimore was home to so many privateers the British admiralty declared the place "a nest of pirates" -- their pretext for attacking Fort McHenry in 1812.
Last month, that was a theme at "Privateer Day." That's an annual pirate fest held in Fells Point -- one of hundreds now held each year from California to Cape Cod -- where a faux pirate invasion, a pub crawl, and other activities drew about 4,000 scalawags this year.
Whatever their longitude, modern pirates agree the trend is mainly about one thing. "In our ordinary, regimented lives, most people live in fear of looking different or out of step," says Baur. "They ... admire pirates for saying, 'To hell with your expectations! I'm living my life for ME, not to gain your approval.' It's a little thing we call freedom."
More fun by farrr
Life's pretty good, and why wouldn't it be? I'm a pirate, after all.
- Johnny Depp, as Capt. Jack Sparrow
As piracy spreads, the liberation takes many forms.
At the New Orleans convention, merchandisers peddled bucket boots, bodices and puffy shirts, as they do at renaissance fairs around the country today, and civilians in costume cried "arrr" and swilled their grog.
In Key West, pirate buff Pat Croce, former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, displays pirate flags and swords from his own collection at the popular museum he founded, Pirate Soul.
Off Cape Cod, excavators still haul up loot from the Whydah, a pirate ship that sank in a squall in 1717. It wasn't discovered until 1984, when, according to legend, its long-dead captain, "Black Sam" Bellamy, appeared to treasure hunter Barry Clifford in a dream.
In California, a longtime teacher, Christina Lampe (pirate name: Jamaica Rose) quit her job so she and her husband, Michael (aka "Capt. Michael MacLeod") could hit pirate festivals around the nation. Last week, they were en route from Florida's "Sail Jacksonville" to "Charleston Tall Ships," where they'll hawk stationery, doubloons and their widely distributed magazine, No Quarter Given.
In Maryland, Capt. Moone wed Angel Summers and Chris McKenney of Germantown aboard the Clipper City last week, where the happy couple said not "I do," but "I find these terms to my likin'." (The Pyrates Royale played the reception.) And at Goucher College, the Goucher Pirate Alliance, an officially recognized student club, held its fourth Pirate Fest not long ago. The main event? A "Yarr!" contest.
"We couldn't decide on a winner," says Rachael "Ray" Conklin, the outgoing president, "till the finalists had a whole conversation in 'Yarrs!'"
Why "yarr?" It's the pirate's universal affirmative, says Ol' Chumbucket. "'Yarr!' can mean 'yes,' or 'no,' 'my team's winning' or 'my team's losing!'" Baur says. "It can mean, 'I'm enjoying this frothy beverage,' or 'I'd sure love to weigh anchor in your harbor.'
"Actually, it says what all pirates really want to say: 'I'm here; I'm alive. Deal with me!'"
Ye might like to walk the plank a few o' these ways
So ye love all things pirate, do ye? Here are a few swashbuckling adventures:
Take a pirate-led journey with Capt. Billy Baye as he and his sidekick, Grumpy Stumpy the Pirate Crab, entertain young and old with their music and imaginative tales. Departs from Annapolis City Dock, at the end of Dock Street. 10:45 a.m. on weekends and holidays from May 26-Sept. 3. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 3-11. Call 410-268-7601 or go to watermarkcruises.com.
Revisit the dastardly deeds of pirates throughout Maryland's history. Observe pirates in their encampments and watch their attacks on mock-townships. July 7. Susquehanna Lockhouse Museum, 817 Conesteo St., Havre De Grace. Call 410-939-5780 or go to lockhouse museum.org.
Children ages 6-10 may become pint-sized pirates of the Bay. Join the crew of the Skipjack Martha Lewis and learn to read a treasure map and help navigate the ship while searching for sunken booty. June 22 and 29, July 20 and 23 and August 13. 9 a.m.-11 a.m. Havre De Grace City Yacht Basin, 352 Commerce St., Havre De Grace. Tickets $15. Call 410-939-4078 or go to skipjackmartha lewis.com.
To test your pirate savvy, see photos, hear Pyrates Royale clips and see a "Pirate Masters"preview, go to baltimoresun.com / pirates