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Pirate or Privateer

It’s not too difficult to look like a pirate. If you work at it, you can have a boat that looks like a pirate ship. It’s quite another matter to be a commissioned privateer with an official letter of marque signed by a state governor and a US president. Thanks to North Carolina and President Reagan, Captain Horatio Sinbad and his lieutenant, Terry Brown, can claim all of that and
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It’s not too difficult to look like a pirate. If you work at it, you can have a boat that looks like a pirate ship. It’s quite another matter to be a commissioned privateer with an official letter of marque signed by a state governor and a US president. Thanks to North Carolina and President Reagan, Captain Horatio Sinbad and his lieutenant, Terry Brown, can claim all of that and more.

While in his twenties and working in Detroit, Sinbad built Meka II, a half-scale replica of a pirate brigantine armed with six cannons. “General Motors helped build her, but top management was unaware of it at the time,” he recalls with a pirate’s grin. GM shop workers fabricated metal parts such as chain plates and mast bands.

With his fair skin and blond hair, he bears little resemblance to the legendary Sinbad. He got the name from co-workers in the Windward Islands while working on sailing charters as a teenager and it stuck. He added the Horatio, a nod to the fictional Horatio Hornblower and the real-life naval hero, Horatio Nelson. Tired of being asked for his real name, he legally changed it to Horatio Sinbad.

Sinbad’s destiny may have been set at an early age when Don Quixote and Treasure Island made a big impression on him. After building rafts with his brothers, he built his first small wooden sailboat at age 11. While still a teenager, he christened his self-built 22-footer Meka, the Hopi Indian word for stout, loyal companion. The roadrunner, symbol of the Hopi, appears on Meka II’s fore topsail.

Technically, he is a privateer, not a pirate. A privateer is commissioned by a government while a pirate is an independent. “I’m really both because it depends on how you look at it,” he says. “To the government that commissioned you, you’re a privateer. To the ship you’re attacking, you’re a pirate.”

Sinbad began his commission quest after participating in Op Sail ’76. After he befriended White House staff during planning for that event, one of them arranged for President Ford to sign the letter of marque.

Sinbad and crew showed up in Washington, DC in full uniform, including weapons, for the signing. The minute they set foot on Capitol Hill, the group was promptly arrested. After the would-be privateers repeatedly asked their captors to phone the White House and confirm the appointment, the police did so and learned that the crew's presence at the White House was requested immediately. However, the commotion attracted the attention of the secretary of the navy who advised President Ford against signing the letter of marque giving Sinbad and the Meka II license “by force of arms, to attack, subdue, seize and take all ships and other vessels, goods, wares and merchandise, belonging to or suspected of belonging to the Crown of Great Britain.” Appeals to President Carter went unheeded. When President Reagan finally signed it in 1981, the crucial word "mock" was inserted in front of “attack”. To this day, Sinbad remains North Carolina’s only commissioned privateer.

Aware of the long-term effects childhood experiences can have, he encourages young people to sail. In the 1980s, he and Terry started the Sailing to See program. Unlike pirates of old who abducted crew, Sinbad and Terry get parental approval for four teenage crew to accompany them on two month summer cruises which may include the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Key West. The goals are not just to experience other cultures and learn boating skills, but to strengthen character through self-reliance, discipline, honor, unity, and positive attitude.

The 2002 crew proved they learned their lessons by winning the international class race in Jamaica and bringing home the Americas’ Sail class B trophy now on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. As winning captain, Sinbad named his homeport of Beaufort as the place to defend his title in 2006. Non-traditional pirate booty is expected in the form of over 200,000 visitors to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast for the event.

Sinbad plays the modern day pirate role to the hilt with a dash of farce. With his uniform, beard, ponytailed hair, and gold-rimmed teeth, it is difficult to picture him doing anything else. Despite the challenge of keeping up with teenage crew, he claims “Pirates don’t retire. I’ll keep going ‘til I drop dead on my gun deck.” Janet Hartman

For more about Sinbad, see



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