BY SARAH BLANCHARD
ABOVE, A SILVER-BLUE SKY GLEAMS IN EARLY MORNING. Below, waves slap softly against the hull of the dive boat as the current flows steadily over the sandy shoals of nearby Beaufort Inlet. In the distance, wild horses roam the shores of Shackleford Banks, on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
Only 20 feet below us, there’s mystery. And pirate treasure. Check your airflow, adjust your mask, and slip beneath the gentle waves. A few languid fin-kicks, and you’re there. This is the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of Edward Teach—otherwise known as the notorious Pirate Blackbeard.
Finding neutral buoyancy, as I suspend just above the floor, I see something protruding from the deeply carved sand. Is it a rock… or a cannon? It’s heavily crusted with three centuries of hardened sediment and mineral deposits, replete with barnacles and urchins. Only dredging and careful cleaning will reveal its secrets.
For nearly 300 years, ancient sands have alternately covered and scoured everything that drifted down from the world above. What still lies here? Gold, jewels, pieces of eight? It’s impossible to tell without methodical archaeological excavation, examination and careful cleaning. But it all starts with curiosity and the desire for storied adventure.
WRECK DIVING IN THE BANKS
This year’s research dives to the Queen Anne’s Revenge are scheduled to take place in late summer and fall. The project offered a diver awareness program (including a dive to the pirate ship) and may do so with regularity in the future. Visit the Maritime Museum (www.ncmaritimemuseums.com) or the research project website (www.qaronline.org) for more information.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic is a spectacular playground for anyone interested in diving other shipwrecks, and it’s easy to arrange for a customized dive to see German U-boats, older warships and commercial vessels. In Beaufort, Discovery Diving (www.discoverydiving.com) can guide any size dive group to more than two-dozen sunken ships. Their “signature wreck” is the U352, a German submarine.
To follow a possibly more lucrative lead to pirate treasure, you may want to head about 50 miles north to Ocracoke Island. One of Blackbeard’s favorite anchorages was in a deep-water channel called Teach’s Hole. There he lived, partied with his mates, and was eventually killed. If Blackbeard buried treasure on Ocracoke, that’s where it should be.
GRAVEYARD OF THE ATLANTIC
North Carolina’s Outer Banks comprise more than 200 miles of sandy barrier islands that stretch southward along North Carolina’s shoreline from Virginia. To the north are Roanoke, Ocracoke, and Hatteras. The southern Banks—the Crystal Coast— include Harkers Island, Carrot Island and Shackleford.
This is the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” a realm of shifting sandbars, treacherous shoals, wandering channels and submerged islands. It’s the last resting place for hundreds of ill-fated ships, from WWII German U-Boats to commercial cargo vessels and pirate ships.
In pre-Revolutionary times, pirates roamed the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to the Caribbean. During any of the frequent European wars, entrepreneurial seamen signed on with one monarch or another as privateers—licensed pirates. They were hired to disrupt shipping and seize lucrative cargo from anyone who wasn’t an ally.
When peace broke out, the rulers offered amnesty to the privateers if they’d stop pirating. But many unemployed privateers declared allegiance to no one and went into the pirating business on their own, plundering any ship that looked promising. Ships from France, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain—all were considered fair game. Residents of coastal villages relied on the black-market pirate trade to survive, and whatever cargo the pirates seized could be sold for a profit. Gold, of course, was the best prize of all.
Queen Anne’s Revenge was a fast, strong ship; a 300-ton, 40-gun frigate that Blackbeard had captured from the French. But only six months after he’d taken her, he ran aground in Beaufort Inlet.
In June of 1718, Blackbeard decided to downsize his large crew by scuttling his flagship and marooning most of his men on an island. He offloaded the ship’s cargo onto a smaller vessel and departed with a few friends for the nearby island of Ocracoke. He accepted the governor’s amnesty, quit the pirate’s life, but soon reneged on the deal. England declared him a most-wanted criminal, and Blackbeard was killed on Ocracoke by the Royal Navy in November of that same year.
WHERE’S THE GOLD?
In 1996, the research company Intersal, Inc. found Queen Anne’s Revenge while searching for El Salvador, a Spanish treasure galleon that went down in 1750 during a hurricane in the same area. Intersal turned over the research and recovery of Queen Anne’s Revenge to the state of North Carolina.
Dredging operations, under the direction of the Department of Cultural Resources, have retrieved cannons, anchors, a ship’s bell, a small amount of gold, and many general shipboard items left behind when the crew abandoned ship.
Yet, as Queen Anne’s Revenge sits in the shallow water and deep sand of Beaufort Inlet, the question on everyone’s mind is, what happened to Blackbeard’s legendary treasure hoard?
“It’s an archeological treasure, not a monetary one,” says David Moore, the curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. For the past 15 years, he’s been diving the wreck site, participating in the effort to recover artifacts. The museum displays many of these in a permanent exhibit that offers a fascinating look at 17th century seafaring life.
Ocracoke is also the site of another notorious episode in piracy. In 1750, two Englishmen contrived to steal a large treasure from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, which was damaged in the same hurricane that disabled El Salvador. Guadalupe, thought to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Treasure Island, carried chests of silver and gold bound for Spain.
In a new book, Treasure Island: The Untold Story, writer John Amrhein traces the story of how the Guadalupe treasure was stolen and transported to the Caribbean. Amrhein believes there’s still treasure hidden somewhere on an island in the Caribbean.
Or maybe some of it is still on Ocracoke. An old Spanish shipping document stated that El Salvador “struck a sandbar and broke up … her cargo consisted of 16 chests of silver and four of gold.” Although no large stash has yet been found on the Outer Banks, the occasional Spanish coin has been retrieved from the beaches.
And Intersal, the company that found Queen Anne’s Revenge, is still looking for El Salvador near Beaufort Inlet.
BEAUFORT: LODGING, FINE FOOD AND DRINK
To experience the full flavor of the community where Blackbeard lived and “worked,” plan to stay in the historic village of Beaufort, founded in 1709. (If you like kitsch and organized silliness, try to be there on September 19 for their annual “Talk Like a Pirate” day.)
North Carolina’s coast is a boater’s paradise, so if you’re cruising or sailing, look for inns and marinas that offer slips and moorings. Many restaurants have their own docks, and the public docks are convenient to pretty much everything. If you’re visiting for a week or more, many cottages and lovely homes, in the village or on the beach, are available for lease.
For a briefer stay, the Inlet Inn (www.inlet-inn.com) provides excellent lodging on Front Street across from the docks. Request rooms on the second or third floor for a superb morning view of the wild horses wandering on Carrot Island, across the harbor. Stroll to antique shops, chandlers, boutiques, restaurants, the Maritime Museum, the historic district, and the privately owned Hammock House (c. 1700) where Blackbeard once lived (and is rumored to have murdered a common-law wife).
After a hard day of pirate studies or wreck diving, a hearty feast is in order. On the waterfront, excellent dinner choices include the Stillwater or the 100-year-old Spouter Inn and Bakery; both are on Front Street, just a few steps from the Museum shipwright’s workshop. The Cru Wine Bar and Wine Store on Turner Street, with the adjoining Beaufort Coffee Shop, also is good for light meals and a great selection of wines. Two other fine dining choices are the Blue Moon Bistro and the Beaufort Grocery Company, which once was a grocery. Both are on Queen Street, just steps away from the Inlet Inn.
Are Finders Keepers?
When you dive a wreck, you touch history. This bell, that wheel-house, this bit of china or silver—all these were part of a ship—a floating, working community for the crew who kept her sailing the seas, seeking adventure and their own fortunes—until some misfortune caused her to founder and sink.
What can you take away as a keepsake or a bit of treasure? The old adage “Finders, keepers” is not actually a statement of law, so this can get sticky. It depends on the scope and scale of your hunt, who owns the land or water that you’re on, the value of what you’ve found, and whether the rightful owner can come forward to claim the lost item.
If you pick up a Spanish coin from a public beach (which happens!) or retrieve a small item from a local wreck dive, then yes, you can keep the item unless someone can prove ownership. But you are legally obligated to report it to the local constabulary. Ask your dive guide for information about local protocols.
However, if you’ve been bitten by the treasure bug and you plan to bring up large quantities of valuable artifacts from a known wreck in U.S. waters, you’ll need to chat first with the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
In international waters, things get a bit murkier. If you’ve found a previously undiscovered treasure ship, you’ll need a good attorne y at your side—someone who thoroughly understands maritime salvage laws at the international level.
When Mel Fisher found Atocha in 1988 in Florida waters, the state took him to court and demanded a sizable percentage of the treasure.
Fisher won and he got to keep his gold and silver, but it cost quite a bit in time and legal fees.
And don’t forget: Just like winning the lottery, you’ll be expected to pay taxes on the appraised value of your find. Happy hunting!