Capt. Horatio Sinbad has spent more than 50 years aboard the pirate ship he built in his driveway, dedicating his life to swashbuckling and the sea.
As a professional pirate, the 74-year-old sports long white hair, gold-capped teeth and a privateer’s commission signed by President Ronald Reagan — granting him, in humorous fashion, an official right to plunder. He wears a tri-cornered hat in casual company.
His obsession runs so deep that in 1970, he took his pirate name as his legal name, and when he answers the shell-shaped telephone on-board the Meka II, he says, “This is Sinbad.”
But this weekend, when the coastal town hosts its annual Beaufort Pirate Invasion on the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s execution, one of the festival’s founders and main attractions will play no part, not even as a pirate consultant. Sinbad and the Meka II will not storm the festival’s harbor with cannons blasting, a tradition dating to 1973.
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“It’s harder to be a pirate than the old days,” Sinbad explained.
After 45 years, Sinbad and the nonprofit he runs have abandoned the festival in frustration, citing bureaucracy unbearable to a pirate. He showed a list of charges the town of Beaufort wanted to levy against his organization this year, including parking fees, solid waste fees and security officers — a bill totaling $3,317.
He said the town required him to fill out a lengthy permit application before setting up shop, a far cry from the handshake deals of his past.
Mayor Everette “Rett” Newton said in an email that he appreciates Sinbad’s contribution to the community, but the fees and regulations are necessary to make the event come together in a way that’s safe, organized and fun. He said the town’s costs for the event are not “insignificant.”
“Ultimately, our town government needs to be transparent and able to tell tax payers how their money is spent,” Newton said in an email. “We have also established an events grant program to better support events while maintaining the required transparency.”
The invasion is still set for August, and the town will toast Sinbad and the Meka for their 51 years of service.
For an authentic buccaneer, sitting on the sidelines stings like the lash.
“I love my fans,” he said, “especially those little kids who are 8 and under, and that were like me and just couldn’t believe that there’s pirates. Everybody wants to be a pirate, even the older people, somewhere down inside. They’re the first ones who go to see ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ They live vicariously through their young children, when their eyes get beamy with, ‘Wow, I need a sword! I need a sword!’
“Unfortunately, a lot of that doesn’t last. If you could just keep up kind of a youthful thing, we’d be better off. We’re all pirates.”
Born to be a pirate
Sinbad, born Ross Andrew Morphew, traces his fascination with piracy to the 1950 Walt Disney adaptation of “Treasure Island,” which he watched as a boy growing up in Detroit. The son of a General Motors engineer, Sinbad built his first boat at age 11 — an 8-footer that capsized in a suburban lake.
At 16, he ran away from home to join a schooner’s crew in the Caribbean, answering an advertisement in Yachting magazine. In St. Lucia, he met Capt. Walter Bordeaux, who carried a long knife on his belt and quickly sized up the scrawny teen from Michigan.
“Son,” Sinbad recalled his new boss saying, “do you got a return ticket? This work will kill you. I didn’t want a pasty white boy. I wanted a sailor.”
But Sinbad survived shoves from surly shipmates and fish heads for supper, earning a promotion to first mate and a pair of nicknames, first “The Barbarian” and then “Sinbad.” Before the teen went home to finish high school, he had stumbled accidentally into a brothel, been served Caribbean rum and fought with his own ship’s captain.
“I was in heaven,” he recalled.
Back in Michigan, married with children and his own General Motors job in the 1960s, the lure of piracy still tugged at Sinbad. So he began building his own ship in the driveway, a 54-foot brig outfitted with eight cannons. Over several years, he exhausted his savings and ran afoul of city inspectors and their construction deadlines.
Michigan news crews documented his new turn as a suburban outlaw, and when a crane finally dropped the Meka II in the Detroit River, Sinbad never looked back.
He devoted his life to being a professional pirate. People magazine once featured him in an 1979 article titled, “Captain Sinbad offers a 5-day course in legalized piracy.”
Sinbad never intended to stay in Beaufort, having brought the Meka there in 1973 to work on a temporary job. He got roped into the original pirate invasion as a lark, being a natural fit already dressed in colonial garb.
But he raised four children on board. His grandchildren — one of them nicknamed “Swab” — still roam its decks.
A life of perseverance
This isn’t the first time Sinbad and officials have squabbled behind the scenes. Last year, officials were frustrated that Sinbad’s group canceled the invasion on short notice. At the time, Sinbad explained he wanted to focus on 2018 and the Blackbeard anniversary. His group eventually got back on board, and the invasion happened as planned, but not without some sore feelings among town officials.
“Hopefully the public and the folks who attend the event will not see a difference,” downtown development association President Susan Sanders told The Carteret News-Times in 2017. “We want the people who come to it to not even realize there has been a change, but there will be a presence of the Beaufort community involved with the event.”
This year, Carl Cannon, a festival veteran better known as Capt. Blackbeard, will step into Sinbad’s pirate role. Sinbad hopes his successor can handle the red tape process.
As for Sinbad, he won’t completely retire. Earlier this month, he ran a smaller pirate invasion at Bald Head Island. He has long found work in woodworking and boat repair. But the Beaufort festival made him legendary, and this year, on the Blackbeard anniversary, he will be especially missed.
People misunderstand piracy, Sinbad said. They think it’s all rum, treasure and fair maidens — the ultimate escape. But it takes perseverance to learn sailing in shallow waters, to tack around shoals. It takes endurance to live in the salt air without a tree for shade.
With or without the festival, Sinbad will recall his purpose in life each time an admiring 8-year-old stabs him in the side with a plastic sword.
If You Go
What: Beaufort Pirate Invasion
Where: Beaufort, NC
When: Aug. 10-11
Cost: Free with many vendors