Related: A Pirate’s Life: In North Carolina, the Atlantic’s most notorious buccaneers — from the fearsome Blackbeard to the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet — left behind an aura of mystery
Related: A Pirate’s Life: In North Carolina, the Atlantic’s most notorious buccaneers — from the fearsome Blackbeard to the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet — left behind an aura of mystery and a spirit of daring and adventure.
The wild-maned man now preparing to rain down cannon fire on a nearby hotel hadn’t been able to figure out what he wanted to do in life — until he became someone else.
He tried shrimping, boatbuilding, mechanical engineering, nursing; he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Right now, he’s perched on the deck of a black-and-red ship, handcrafting aluminum foil tubes that his crew will soon pack with gunpowder. “That’s been one of my problems,” Carl Cannon Jr. says with a growl. “I couldn’t decide.”
And yet, the answer was right here in his hometown all along. In the maritime pursuits of his father. In the wanderlust of his mother. In the wind-lashed shores and history-haunted boardwalks of Beaufort. The 61-year-old Cannon found his destiny when he became Blackbeard.
• • •
Cannon’s 46-foot ship, the Adventure, slips out of Gallants Point at 6:07 on this balmy evening, skull-and-bones banner flapping in the wind. Clocking eight knots and carrying five crew members and six cannons, the vessel is headed southeast for battle. Its name is a nod to the ship that Blackbeard sailed after grounding and possibly scuttling the Queen Anne’s Revenge in Beaufort Inlet. The Adventure was the ship that the notorious pirate died defending — hacked, shot, and beheaded by a British navy force sent from Virginia. But Blackbeard didn’t really die on November 22, 1718. That was just his send-off into the realm of dubious legend and a kind of reincarnation. A cycle that would eventually lead to Cannon’s attack tonight on the Beaufort Hotel.
Standing at the helm in a tricorn hat, black tunic, and crimson sash, Cannon lights a Cheyenne cigar and fixes his flinty gaze on the distance. Before him lies downtown Beaufort, with its hundreds of tourists — as well as a handful of locals who, like Cannon, wear pirate garb to entertain the crowds.
Cannon is leading Beaufort’s annual Pirate Invasion, a September festival dating back to 1960, when local firemen donned eye-patches, bandanas, and grease-painted beards to stage an amphibious assault followed by an all-hands town party. The festival evolved in fits and starts, but in the 21st century, it was in danger of foundering — until Cannon made a deal with another legendary seaman to take up the Blackbeard torch.
Cannon’s pirate persona fits him snugly, like Jack Sparrow’s bandana. This isn’t a plastic-grinned Disney buccaneer. His hide is deep-fried, his stare resolute, his manner serious. His unruly mane and beard are real, albeit dyed at this point — because no kid is lining up to meet Graybeard. When he leads his pirate crew to festivals and special events around the region, Cannon and company set up a tent camp where they not only welcome visitors but also roast pork over an open flame, braid rope out of coconut fiber, and, naturally, fire their beloved cannons.
And, perhaps most convincingly, this Blackbeard is a creature of the water. Beaufort’s waters. The original Blackbeard’s waters.
• • •
The origins of Edward Teach — later known as Blackbeard — are as murky as the Beaufort Inlet after an angry storm. Cannon subscribes to the theory that the pirate must have spent a good while on the North Carolina coast. How, other than through hard-won experience, could he have so adroitly navigated the region’s treacherous waterways?
Cannon, too, put in the time and sweat to know the place. “I grew up here like Huck Finn,” he says. “Making rafts and sailing them. Skin diving, scuba diving, and treasure hunting. I was a water monkey.” Gesturing to a weather-beaten two-story building across the harbor, he notes, “That used to be my dad’s fish house. I was over there from the time I was 2 to 18. That’s where I learned to shuck oysters, clean fish, work a shrimp boat, everything.”
He describes his father, Carl Cannon Sr., as a “bearish, good-hearted Sunday school teacher” reputed to have once killed an alligator with nothing but a stick. Cannon’s mother, Linda, also a shrimper, was a romantic — struck, he says, by a dash of pirate’s wanderlust. “She wanted to see the world,” he says. When he was still a lad, his mom left with another man and moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida. “God, I wanted to go with her so bad. I was close to my mom,” Cannon says as he glances up from his preparations to attack the hotel. “But Dad would never allow it.”
Instead, the boy connected with his absent mother through books, especially novels about adventures on the seas — Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe. When he was done with work at the fish house, he’d tramp over to the makeshift maritime museum run by celebrated local historian Grayden Paul Jr. There, he’d sweep up while soaking in the old man’s tales of pirates and high adventure on these shores. “I thought [that] if I had lived 300 years ago, I’d have a ship and a crew, and I’d be out looking for resources and opportunities. I’d be in the same boat as him” — Blackbeard.
• • •
Approaching the Beaufort Hotel, Cannon eyes the waiting civilians lining the wide patios and balconies on the water’s edge. “Prepare to fire,” he commands the colorful crew, including wife Jo, his lieutenant and head gunner. The imminent attack won’t be a surprise to the hotel and guests. It’s part of the raucous tradition of pirate theatrics that stretches back more than 60 years to the first Pirate Invasion festival. Cannon recalls ogling those early reenactments and being awed to know that “pirates had been here before — and would be back.”
Likewise, no matter where he wandered in his adult life, Cannon always returned to Beaufort. The tides of life sometimes left him low. Three marriages sank. As he sailed into middle age, he wondered, What am I going to be when I grow up? Cultivating his Blackbeard persona, he started going to events in pirate garb and volunteered for the Pirate Invasion, by then a nonprofit led by the white-bearded Capt. Horatio Sinbad.
Cannon’s decades of maritime adventures and fascination with the outlaws of the sea made him a standout among the scoundrels. Sinbad, who’d been piloting the Invasion since the early ’70s, took note, and in 2017, when the local icon tired of doing the big event every year, the helm was passed to Cannon, who captained his first Invasion in 2018. “He’s done a very, very good job,” says Sinbad, puffing a cigar. “I rate him the best.”
Back on the Adventure, Cannon orders his crew to fire a full barrage of cannon blanks at the hotel. The explosions shake the ship’s walls and put smiles on the faces of the guests. As gun smoke, cheers, and whoops of “Aaargh, matey!” trail in his wake, this latest Blackbeard slips back up the inlet. Unlike his ruthless namesake, Cannon sails away a hero.
WATCH: Take to the high seas — er, Taylor’s Creek in Beaufort, that is — with Carl Cannon to see his portrayal of Blackbeard, and learn more about North Carolina’s most infamous pirate.