Look how far we’ve come from the days of those wayward Neanderthals and their crude log rafts. Save for the introduction of teak wood, boating by the 18th century had evolved into an integral, incontestable and wholly favorable aspect within the course of human events. We could circumnavigate the globe, sail into every nook and cranny to plunder, pillage and exploit the spoils of discovery. Times were good in the marine industry, but the long-ago and seemingly forsaken pleasures of recreational boating⎯demonstrated and perfected by the Romans and their pleasure barges⎯had taken a back seat. In fact, you could say that pleasure boating was relegated to the rumble seat... on a cold, rainy day on a road full of gaping, jagged-edged pot holes.
This was the hey-day of great naval commanders. Guys like Lord Admiral Nelson, John Paul Jones and Horatio Hornblower were all the rage. As men with lots of boats, armed to the teeth, they did what came naturally: they cruised about the open seas sipping grog, sanding teak and itching for a fight. The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch navies constantly harassed one another, gaining advantages and succumbing to superior forces according to the uncontrollable fortunes of fate. It was a real Donnybrook on the high seas and everyone was happy with the way things were going. But, just as in modern times, maintaining huge defense budgets when national resources were already stretched too thin started rulers to thinking that maybe they could cut back a bit. Shuttle diplomacy wasn’t heard of back then, if for no other reason than that the airlines hadn’t established much of a “red-eye express” schedule, so the potentates started falling back on that old tradition of arranging marriages between kingdoms to keep the peace. Navies were mothballed and the result was the unemployment of a massive number of men who had known nothing but a seaborne existence. The food service (“Would you like fries with that...”) and landscape maintenance (“You want the leaves blown or bagged...”) industries weren’t quite yet what they are today, so all those unskilled workers needed something to keep busy at. Imagine career counseling back then:
“Well, seaman Jones, let’s look over your resume, shall we? Scrubbing decks... good. Reaming out the cannons... uh huh. Lancing the occasional festering boil; climbing to the mast tops for lookout duty... you’re quite the little order-taker, aren’t you? It says here you take your grog neat and prefer lightly dark-skinned wenches. And your crew voted you ‘Most likely to kill with impunity.’ Jolly good! Shows you’re a self-motivator. Well, seaman Jones, I’d like you to take our standardized career aptitude test, but I think I see a man bound to go a’pyrating, hmmmmm...?”
Yes, A’pyrating! Sailing off “on the account.” Signing the Articles. Joining the Brethren of the Coast. Sea rovers and rogues, scallywags, swashbucklers, buccaneers, privateers, corsairs... those who would grant no quarter and give none, sailing under the brave, black flag. Yes, my friends, pleasure boating was FINALLY about to get back on track!
It remains a grand historical misconception that pirates cruised around looking for treasure fleets to attack. In reality, pirates merely sought to commandeer those same common items desired by pleasure boaters of today to keep the cruise going on indefinitely: someone else’s larger and better appointed boat, food, drink, spare parts, up-to-date charts and secluded warm-water anchorages in which you might have an improved chance of convincing your date to go skinny-dipping.
Is it any wonder then that the Caribbean became the center of the pirate world? And what did they have lots of in the Caribbean? Yes, that’s right, sugar cane. And what can you make from sugar cane? Right again, molasses. And what can a little boiling do to molasses? You got it... RUM! And what mixes well with rum? Anybody, anybody? Well, yes, everything mixes well with rum, but especially fruit juices. And the pirates were in the Caribbean, right?! Heaps of bananas, mangoes, pineapples and coconuts literally falling off the trees! We can only imagine how different history would be if waring had invented the pureeing blender sooner than later.
Thus, we entered the Golden Age of Piracy and what a grand time it was, a several decades-long bash that set the un-since-reached standard for all raft-up, rendezvous, sandbar and beach/boat parties to come. We must be eternally grateful to the pirates for showing us how "the boating thing" is done right.” One sure way to know people are having REAL boating fun is when everybody starts giving one another nicknames and herewith are a few of the standouts: Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Black Bart, Captain Morgan, Miss Bonnie, One-Eyed Pete, Lefty, Captain Hook, Blue Britches Bill, Two Fingers Willy, Slippery Sam, The Sea Weasel, Big Darkie, Little Whitey and The Grog Meister General... to name but a few.
Like all misunderstood boating fun-lovers, the pirates had to contend with their own version of marine patrols and after a time⎯under the typically misguided direction of landlocked bureaucrats⎯society began looking down their noses at the carefree ways of the pirates. Written warnings, fines, citations and community service were uncommon then due to a lack of non-carbon duplicate forms and fine point pens, so pirates were generally arrested, tried and summarily hung. Yet, the seeds for a re-awakening of pleasure boating were sewn and began to grow like mold on a mildewed mushroom.
Although piracy on the high seas was essentially eradicated by the start of the 19th Century, it did make a comeback of sorts, but in an entirely new manner in a way which made it almost legal… or at least made it almost impossible to get caught.
We know how temperamental a boat powered by sail can be so was it any wonder that so many of them ended up on the beach? You see, since those sail-driven ships were so slow the captains were always trying to cut navigational corners so as to shave just a little time here and a little time there off the length of their voyages. This usually meant taking the most direct route from port to port, hugging the shallow and treacherous coastal waters as opposed to heading well offshore with plenty of fathoms left beneath the keel. In doing so, numerous ships found themselves aground and if not pulled off quickly, were beaten back into individual planks by breaking surf.
According to the old coastal laws and traditions, when a ship did run aground on the beach, the local waterfront community would help save the crew, then await the inevitable break-up of the ship by the pounding waves resulting in a real windfall as the flotsam of the ship planks and its cargo washed ashore and was gathered up in a big community-wide beachcombing party. In time, certain individuals did nothing BUT wait for a ship to ground and break up, and these entrepreneurs (some would call them piratical scavengers) came to be known as “Wreckers.”
The most entrepreneurial of these wreckers also moonlighted… and quite literally so. They were the “beach pirates” more commonly known as “Moon-Cussers.” What they did see, was figure out that when a ship was coasting a few miles offshore (for fear of running aground), if they could get a captain to believe that there was another ship closer to shore then the captain offshore would feel much more confident about altering course landward. To accomplish this deception, on very dark nights the moon-cussers would walk the beach swinging lanterns, even a red or green one like a ship’s running lights, so as to simulate a ship being close-in to shore. (Sometimes even, the lantern was hung around the neck of an old plow horse to simulate the up-and-down rocking motion of a ship. This practice was often used by the wreckers of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, hence the naming of a place like Nags Head Beach. As the beach in closest proximity to the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the Outer Banks was shipwreck central!) The captain offshore would sometimes fall for the trick, alter course, and end up running his ship aground. Hence, the moon-cussers preferred dark nights as opposed to those lit up by a full moon which precluded fooling even a novice mariner and hence, gave them their nickname.
Like they say, "one man’s loss is another man's gain," and word of a ship grounded in the surf usually spread through a town like wildfire. The preferred wrecks were those carrying spirits since the barrels floated and the annals of coastal history are replete with tales of weekend and even week long impromptu beach parties fueled by the windfall booze supply.
Next time: Steam Power, Paddle Wheels and Submarines