Pirates,” says Captain Horatio Sinbad, “were cutthroats. They killed whomever they attacked, and the captain was the pirate who could stay in control. If the crew could manage it, they killed him too, and someone else became captain.” Looking for a vocation with more to offer in the way of longevity, Sinbad—prosaically known as Ross Morphew—turned to legal privateering instead.
Not since the early days of the Civil War, however, when the Confederacy sanctioned attacks on Union shipping by private warships, has privateering netted a profit, so Morphew has become an instructor. He charges $375 for a floating five-day course in general seamanship, navigation and gunnery. Today, with his paying crew, the scowling and bewhiskered Morphew prowls the waters off Beaufort, N.C. in his 54-foot brigantine, Meka II.
Morphew’s yen for the seafaring life dates back to childhood summers on a farm in Michigan, where he built a raft and cruised the cattle pond. At 16 he tried to run away to sea, but was arrested in Ohio for vagrancy. His father let him decide what to do next, so he headed for the Bahamas, where he crewed on a large sailing yacht. “You can use that training in anything you do,” says Morphew. “I learned so much about myself—about life. I think it would be good to require every 15-year-old to go to sea.”
Determined to be master of his own ship, Morphew went back to high school and spent two years building a sloop, Meka I. After he learned to sail it on the Great Lakes, he and his new wife, Marilyn (from whom he has been separated since last year), took the boat up the St. Lawrence River and down the East Coast to Miami. On the way Meka I foundered off North Carolina in a storm, and they were rescued by an Irish freighter. Returning to Detroit by bus, Morphew went to work as a draftsman for GM and began building Meka II in the yard of his rented house in Dearborn Heights. Bigger and sturdier than her predecessor, with mahogany timbers and beamed oak decking, the new boat was launched in 1967. To support her, Morphew worked in shipyards and later as a carpenter before sailing back to North Carolina three years later.
Morphew makes sure his students understand the historical difference between privateers and pirates. “Privateers had the fastest ships, the best crews, the biggest guns,” he tells them. “They could always defeat the pirates, and they were backed by intelligent businessmen.”
When not carrying students, Morphew, in his guise as Captain Sinbad, has sailed with the Tall Ships during New York’s Bicentennial celebration and fired his cannon within earshot of officials at Mount Vernon. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all declined his request for commission as a federal privateer, though Ford did send a supply of presidential ballpoint pens. Then, Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina granted him the title of official state freebooter. “It’s all in fun,” says Morphew, but the glint in his eye hints at mischief to come. “After all,” he points out, “I am the only licensed privateer in the world.”