One of the most beloved Jimmy Buffett songs is a reflective, anguished ballad from the early 1970s that has nothing to do with cheeseburgers in paradise, volcanoes or margaritas — although a little bit of rum may be involved.
“A Pirate Looks at Forty” is about an aging sailor who is fading into the sunset and realizing that he’s found his perfect occupation … “two hundred years too late.” Having become a writer about the time most folks decided to quit reading, I kinda know how the guy feels. Maybe that’s why it’s one of my go-to songs when I pick up a guitar. My grandson even requests it sometimes:
“Pop, play that slow song.”
Of course, the man who wrote the seafaring ditty is still writing songs, doing concerts and building a lime-flavored empire that sells escapism and has made him quite a wealthy beach bum. I guess that ol’ pirate found his second wind long before he started looking at 75.
Now past the half-century mark myself, I find myself preferring calm waters to roaring surf, and I drink a lot more water than rum. My boat is a kayak — not exactly suitable for piracy. But you’ve got to be careful not to drop a permanent anchor too early. If you don’t keep sailing forward with your flags unfurled, the barnacles will get you, and you’ll slowly sink into oblivion before you spot a shiny jewel that could be part of some long lost or forgotten treasure.
I would not be shocked to find those pearls of hope along a forgotten coast or while snorkeling off a Caribbean island, but I was rather stunned last week to stumble across such a jewel while surfing social media.
I’m a member of a super-exclusive private Facebook group of Parrotheads with a mere 71,000 or so members and saw a post that caught my eye. A guy had taken a dilapidated houseboat and turned it into a pirate ship. For just $49,000, I could live on a pirate ship! The post was shared by numerous Parrotheads who thought it’d be right up the group’s alley. It originally showed up in another Facebook group called “Pirates, Mermaids & Scallywags,” and was posted by the man who built it — a fellow named Dan Corder. Thousands upon thousands have now seen it — and a whole bunch of them have blown up Dan’s phone with messages and questions.
Dan is a 63-year-old widower and retired firefighter who lives in Callao, Va., a Northern Neck village on the Chesapeake Bay. That’s where he resurrected the houseboat. It was a bit far for me to seize the ship and bring down to Georgia, but I did sense a story. Besides, all the other scallywags I’ve talked to over the years were unofficial scallywags. This guy had the potential to be a real live scallywag. It was highly unlikely he was a mermaid.
It turns out that Dan has done this kind of thing before — 32 times before. That’s fairly remarkable for guy who never set out to become a pirate or a ship builder. It all started when he simply tried to keep a grizzled old friend from doing something crazy after the fellow had become exasperated with his vessel.
“My neighbor was a dock builder and built a lot of docks here in the Northern Neck area,” Dan recalls. “He was a legend, really. He was a World War II generation guy that was hard at it up until the time he died recently. He had this old skiff. The (expletive) thing, it sank more than it floated. Every time I’d get off at the fire department, I’d come here and the thing would be sunk.”
Dan came home from a shift at the fire station one day to find his neighbor pumping out his boat yet again. He asked what was going on and got an unusual if not totally surprising reply:
“I’m gonna finally get rid of this pain-in-the-ass boat. We’ve got a favorable tide, and we’ve got a favorable wind. I’m gonna pump this thing out, and I’m going to send it over to Maryland as a present.”
Worried that his neighbor might follow through on the threat and endanger some unsuspecting boater, Dan convinced him to tow the boat over to his dock instead. Dan said he’d do something with it.
“And I did — I built a pirate ship,” Dan says. “This thing was so in-your-face gaudy. The mast was a telephone pole, if you can imagine, that had been cut off. So it was really heavy. The amount of decorations and weight — the sheer weight that I had on this thing — only gave it about a foot of free board above the water line. Down here on the Chesapeake Bay, I had to be really careful when I took that thing out so it wouldn’t get swamped.”
Occasionally, Dan would take the delightfully gaudy pirate ship for a ride, much to the delight of neighbors. Cannons were firing once again on the Chesapeake — and, yes, his cannons do fire. (“I make a pretty formidable little cannon out of schedule 40, 3-inch PVC, and it can shoot an orange about the length of a football field,” he tells me.)
“All my neighbors would just go crazy over this thing just because it was so outrageous.”
That was supposed to be the end of the story — a guy who took an old boat and gave it a new life … a quirky, fun new life. Things took a turn, though, when a driver passing by saw the ship docked behind his house and slammed on the brakes while Dan was outside doing yard work. He asked how much Dan wanted for the boat. When Dan said it wasn’t for sale, the man asked how much he’d sell it for if it were for sale.
“I shot him a ridiculous number,” Dan remembers. “He said, ‘Who do I make the check out to?’”
The wealthy buyer lived on Smith Mountain Lake in western Virginia in a house he described as looking like a pirate compound. The one thing he didn’t have was a pirate ship — and we all know how hard it is to be a boat-less buccaneer. He paid Dan extra to deliver the ship, which Dan did with his son’s help.
“When we got home and looked down at the dock, my son said, ‘Wow, you don’t have a pirate ship down there now. What are you gonna do?’” It did look awfully empty down there, Dan thought.
“I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m gonna have to build another one.’”
He built another one. And another one. And …
“It’s morphed into 33 of these boats and one that I keep for myself,” he says. “I typically do one or two per year. I prefer to work in the cold rather than the hot weather.”
The $49,000 houseboat/pirate ship that Dan listed for sale is his most expensive project to date, though he says this is more of a hobby than a business. I ask him if he has a website I can link to — “nah” — in case you’re interested in buying the thing.
“I like producing these things for people at a very, very low price,” he says. “This houseboat that went super-viral, that’s the most expensive one that I have ever done. I’m not making any money on the thing because of the sheer size of it and what I had to do to get that thing going. The motors were no good and had to be redone. If I actually counted my time, I’d probably be losing $20,000 at that price.”
So he must really, really love pirates and have all sorts of swashbuckling fantasies of reliving the Golden Age of Piracy of Blackbeard, Calico Jack and other such scallywags.
“I think the whole allure of this pirate stuff is like just everything in the human condition,” Dan says. “We as human beings just have this innate need to make things and embellish things to be much more grand than they really are. When you think about pirates, per se, in the historical sense, those guys had a (expletive) miserable life. If they weren’t getting shot or stabbed or dying of scurvy, they were sleeping on a boat with no air-conditioning, they didn’t have fresh drinking water, and the only reason they got to liking rum is because it’s the only thing that wouldn’t rot and make them sick.”
And, no, a free bottle of rum is not included with each pirate ship purpose. I asked. #DealBreaker
So, who in the world — besides me — would even want to buy a pirate ship … or live on one?
“They generally fall into two categories,” Dan says. “Category 1 is just people who have legitimate interest in this art that I do. The first category is the most enjoyable to deal with. They are the folks that think this is eclectic and neat and would like to have it either for a floating guest house or an Airbnb or something of that nature.
“And then you have the wackos of the world,” he adds with a chuckle. “I’ve got thousands of text messages on my phone right now, believe it or not, from as far away as Australia. It’s questions like, ‘Does it float?’ Questions like, ‘Can I sail this thing to the Mediterranean Sea from the Potomac River?’ Generally, I reply back ‘Really?’”
Perhaps the bigger question is why does Dan tackle these projects if he’s not getting rich off of them? Why go through all the trouble of looking through second-hand shops and surplus stores for pirate-y decorations? After all, the last Pirates R Us store closed in 1746. It’s because while Dan does not have some “wacko” affinity for pirates, he does love boats and bringing them back to life.
“It’s really just an art in rebirth and trying to make life out of lifelessness,” he says. “We have a lot of old, unwanted, abandoned boats down here. What most folks don’t understand about modern boats is that boats made in the last 30 years are largely fiberglass — and that stuff does not go away. They’ll be here when the dinosaurs come back. The one thing that all of these boats have in common is that all of them, every single one of them, were boats you could not give away. They were in that poor condition.”
So, when he gets a call about a boat that someone considers “dead in the water,” Dan will take a look to see if he might be able to make hope float.
“If it’s salvageable, and most of them are, I’ll make arrangements to get it back to my place on the water,” he says. “Usually after I get ‘em tied up there, I’ll go get a glass of bourbon and take a nice long look at them and wonder what I can do to this boat that makes this thing eclectic and whimsical and pirate-y.
“It’s fun. It’s art.”
If there’s anything “wacko” about Dan, it’s that he admittedly engages in a little anthropomorphism in the way he sees his ships. Then again, folks have been giving their boats people names since the days of Columbus.
“Boats really and truly are like people,” he insists. “When you’re young and hot and you’re running well, everybody wants you. But when you get old, worn-out and tired, people are just not interested in you anymore. I’m just bringing them back to life again and hopefully finding somebody that will care for them.”
In fact, the final price comes with a catch — you’ve got to promise to take good care of them.
“I do try to stay connected with all of them to make sure that they’re being cared for and happy,” Dan says. “As corny as it sounds, I’d hate to see them die a second death.”
The main reason Dan keeps building vessels for wannabe pirates is that it helps numb the pain of losing his wife Denise, who died about five years ago after a battle with cancer. Dan’s voice emanates joy until he speaks of his late wife. His voice cracks.
“Time is all I have now with my wife gone,” he says. “I view it as a form of therapy to keep me busy and not thinking about her all the time.”
She was special, he says. Him, not so much.
“There’s really nothing special about what I do,” he insists. “I’m just an old 63-year-old washed-up career firefighter who lost his wife and does something to keep me occupied. That’s honestly all this is. It’s not magical. It’s not special. I’m not some (expletive) pirate-ship Picasso.”
Well, I think it’s pretty dadgum special that he sometimes talks like a pirate!
We had an unexpectedly long conversation about boats and life and growing older. Then I left him to attend to the thousands of text messages on his phone because the post had gone viral. I don’t envy the attention he is reluctantly getting.
But I do appreciate the hope Dan is giving not just to old boats — but also to old goats, like me.