Why I’m not a pirate

I may spend almost every waking moment on a boat, and much of my travel has been carried out on the backs of waves and under the influence of the wind, but I am not a pirate. I have no interest in pirates other than to avoid them, and I certainly don’t want to talk or act like one. The mythical pirates of lore, simply stated, have been glorified beyond recognition so that most of the general population now correlates any form of nautical undertaking akin to that of Jack Sparrow.

I enjoyed the Disney films for what they were, which was dramatic and comedic entertainment. An unfortunate side effect of the massive popularity of these films has been the constant barrage of pirate references, costumes, and a Jolly Roger on every manner of craft emerging from the marina on a Saturday afternoon.

If you want to act like a pirate, go ahead. The modern rendition is a harmless reenactment that really doesn’t represent true piracy and often consists of an obnoxious amount of “arrrrghs” and an eye patch. So what’s the big deal? Why do pirates irk me so deeply?

Schooner Colombia

Schooner Columbia


It is probably rooted in my days in the tourism industry and time spent on traditional vessels. Any vessel with a traditional appearance, particularly those with a black hull, is subject to an endless barrage of pirate references. But for all the centuries of maritime history, the developments of naval technology, the endless travel of merchant mariners, and the spirit of the great explorers, why we have chosen to focus on the outlaws of the sea? Is it because the other facets of our nautical history seem too mundane to emulate?

[Tweet “The correlation between [mariners] and theatrical pirates only serves to delegitimize our careers.”]

I suspect that the lure of pirate role play is the sense of adventure, the drama and excitement it evokes, and the mythical, swashbuckling, daredevil sailors many people imagine. Yet what I find amongst real sailors is that the sea in its true and natural state is more than enough drama, and that the excessive theatrics pale in comparison to reality. In other words, traveling across oceans is serious business requiring real skills. We don’t need to act, we don’t need to pretend.

I have been considering writing about this for some time now, but a recent post by Captain Jordan Smith of the Pride of Baltimore II rekindled my thoughts on the subject. In reference to the busy summer tall ship festival schedule he wrote:

“The crowds have been huge – thousands of people a day walk our deck. When you see that many people in that many ports, patterns emerge. I feel I must stick up for my crew, here, by saying:

Don’t say “arrrr” to them. Please oh please. I know it’s well meant, done in a spirit of fun, but they are real sailors on a real ship with a storied history; the Baltimore Clippers of the War of 1812 and the construction and travels of Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II are true and compelling stories of maritime prowess, travel, and adventure. Most of what the crew does at these festivals is patiently work to deconstruct what Hollywood pirate films have done to the public consciousness of what a sailing ship is and what a sailor is (it’s almost entirely nonsense).

Look at it this way: anyone who is proficient at and has devoted their life to anything is likely to despise the movie that is made about that thing. Firefighters hate “Backdraft.” Chess players hate the Bobby Fischer movie. Sailors hate pirate movies. If you are interested in a couple of pretty decent films that hit much closer to the mark reality wise, I can recommend “The Bounty” (made in the early 1980’s, with Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh). This is a cinematic retelling of the true story of the famous mutiny on HMS Bounty in the South Pacific in 1789, and the strange and incredible events that followed. Also, the more recent “Master and Commander” film, with Russell Crowe, is the closest thing in sight, sound, and tone to what life aboard a warship in the age of sail likely was.

The real is always more compelling than the fictional, don’t you think?”

A look aloft on the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry

A look aloft on the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry

In an age when the tall ship industry needs to attract as much support as possible in order to remain financially viable, it is not often that you hear crews or captains publicly state their distaste for pirates. I can tell you, from experience, that when a ship offers dockside tours they are excited to talk to you and share the ships history with you. Tall ship sailors are an incredibly passionate community and they want nothing more than to spread their enthusiasm. Nonetheless, this zeal undoubtedly wears thin as the additional task of removing predispositions degrades the authentic experience these historic vessels offer.

Outside of the tall ship festivals, mariners from several other sectors of the industry are tired of the pirate references as well. We who have spent years studying, practicing, working, and traveling on the sea know that this profession is demanding. We are not a group of degenerates floating around and plundering ports. We are a highly professional and skilled community who feel that the correlation between us and theatrical pirates only serves to delegitimize our careers.

Beyond the frustration of such a comparison is the reality that piracy still exists to this day and there is nothing funny about it. Modern day piracy is every bit as violent, and every bit as terrifying to the 21st century mariner as it was to those in the past.


Schooner Bluenose II


If a dramatic pirate reenactment is what you are into, by all means, I am not here to stop you. I plainly wish to differentiate between the work real mariners do with the fantastical rendition the rest of the population envisions. There are several pirate reenactment sites and vessels around the country for those that wish to experience them. However, if you are attending a tall ship festival, sailing on a friends boat, or speaking with a real mariner, please do not act like a pirate.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.