Beaufort hopes to capitalize on pirate's notoriety Relics of Blackbeard's ship might as well be gold on Carolina coast

December 24, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

BEAUFORT, N.C. -- Divers here have pulled barnacle-encrusted cannons and pewter dinner plates from the sandy offshore shallows, a bounty wrested from what they say was Blackbeard's pirate ship.

To the people of this coastal boating village, the relics might as well be gold.

Mayor Hunter Chadwick foresees new motels and restaurants jammed with wide-eyed tourists, eager to see the belongings of the seas' most notorious pirate. They would be whisked here on a four-lane highway connecting this isolated landing with the inland capital of Raleigh.

"Put it all together, there's no telling what it will mean to us," said Chadwick, who thinks this town of 7,500 could eventually rival Mystic Seaport, the re-created Connecticut whaling village. "Beaufort would become not a place to pass through, but a destination."

The discovery of what is thought to be the Queen Anne's Revenge has triggered the biggest commotion here since Blackbeard prowled the Crystal Coast in the early 1700s. Already, many residents are worried that Beaufort will grow too big.

Pirates sell

But times are hard. And pirates sell.

A not-so-bloodthirsty crew of make-believe maties fought a thunderous mock cannon battle in the waters near here recently during the first Blackbeard's Bounty Festival, a fund-raising event for a planned multimillion-dollar museum to house the artifacts. State officials intend to create a "Pirate's Trail" promotion along the coast, and it seems every other dock and store is flying the skull-and-crossbones.

Blackbeard's 103-foot, 40-cannon flagship sank on a sandbar here in 1718, its fate unresolved until this March. That was when a Florida firm called Intersal announced that it had found the ship on Nov. 21, 1996, the last day of its state diving permit, and had teamed with North Carolina experts to recover the remains.

Some veteran shipwreck-hunters question whether the vessel found two miles off the Beaufort Inlet is the Queen Anne's Revenge. They say it is equally likely to be another of the hundreds of shipwrecks that line this coast, and wonder if the state's involvement eroded its objectivity.

"The state has got the worst case of treasure fever I've ever seen," said Barry Clifford, who in 1984 discovered the only vessel ever authenticated as a pirate ship, the Whydah, which sank off Massachusetts in 1717. "With all due respect, I'm far from being convinced that they have the Queen Anne's Revenge."

Clifford, interviewed from his Expedition Whydah Sealab and Learning Center on Cape Cod, said searchers faced with dwindling time and money can convince themselves that they have found what they sought.

"It's like that guy crawling across the desert, seeing mirages," Clifford said. "You see what you want to see."

Examining the evidence

North Carolina officials say that while they have yet to find a "smoking blunderbuss," they are 95 percent sure the wreck is Blackbeard's ship, the most important find since the USS Monitor was located off Cape Hatteras in 1973. Jeffrey Crow, director of the state Division of Archives and History, told a news conference here that divers had recovered 14 cannons, an extraordinary number that he said eliminated other ships as possibilities.

According to Clifford, the number of cannons is meaningless. "Cannons were passed from ship to ship to ship," he said. "That's the 'least' diagnostic."

Ben Benson of Sea Hunt, a shipwreck-hunting firm based in Chincoteague, Va., told the New York Times that he believed it should take several years and millions of dollars to prove this was Blackbeard's ship - an identification the state accomplished with lightning speed.

An authority with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Texas speculated that North Carolina officials might have better proof of the ship's authenticity than has been reported in the news media. "I wouldn't want to rely just on the number of cannons or size of cannons," said Barto Arnold, the agency's director of Texas operations.

One problem is that many shipwrecks occurred at roughly the same spots, in the way cars repeatedly crash at the same dangerous intersection. Some ships settled on top of one another, while others were scattered by drift.

"I'm 99 percent sure this is the Queen Anne's Revenge," said Phil Masters, president of Intersal. As for the doubts of other shipwreck hunters, Masters said: "From their point of view I can understand the skepticism, because they had a great deal of frustration getting people to believe them. But they haven't done the research I've done."

Jane Wolff, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Maritime Museum here, said the museum was moving ahead with plans for a new hall to display the artifacts, which so far include three anchors, several iron hoops, a Spanish bell, and part of a brass blunderbuss.

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