Image courtesy of Mac Lummis
Pirate Bill was a beloved Coral Bay icon known and loved by many. We here at News of St. John have received numerous emails over the past few months inquiring about Pirate Bill. People asked about his story, his history. Sadly Pirate Bill passed away earlier this summer. Having not had the opportunity to meet Pirate Bill myself, I decided to reach out to a woman who had.
Margie Smith Holt had the privilege of spending time with Pirate Bill a few years back. Some of you loyal St. John fans may have read this story before, but we assure you it’s good enough to read again. Margie has granted News of St. John permission to reprint the following article, which was originally published in the St. John Sun Times.
Pieces of Eight by Margie Smith Holt
Image courtesy of Margie Smith Holt
Pirates, I have learned since moving to St. John, have discriminating taste in beer.
Grog, the watered-down rum that was the aqua vitae of all the seventeenth century seamen I read about as a kid, is passé. No modern-day pirate would be caught dead drinking it.
I sailed with one pirate who stocked only Heineken (and Stoli) in his galley. At Skinny Legs, where pirates venture in and out all the time, the Bucket of Buds happy hour special just hasn’t taken off. Every now and then a table of tourists will order it, but the locals are all drinking out of green bottles.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, when I met Pirate Bill late one afternoon for an interview and he requested that our first stop be a beer run at the Calabash Boom mini-market. He emerged with a six-pack of Elephant (imported from Denmark).
Pirate Bill looks the part. He is wearing his trademark bandanna, covering long, yellowish-white hair. His beard hangs down to his upper chest, stopping short of his necklace, which boasts three large, silver coins. Bright blue eyes shine out from a weathered face. He is barefoot, as always. (He tells me later that he gave up shoes in the seventies.)
This St. John icon says he is 69 years old but, in true Coral Bay fashion, won’t tell me his last name. (“Bill,” he replies, when I ask. “My first name is Pirate.”)
He is soft-spoken, which catches me off guard, surrounded as we are on this island by many grown men who are living out their Disney fantasies (fantasies not exclusive to the tropics, by the way) by flying the Jolly Roger from their boats and striding around bellowing AAARRRRGHHHH! (When I told a New Yorker friend that I was writing this story, he dramatically recited for me his one line from a college production of The Pirates of Penzance: “We are rough men! AAARRRRGHHHH!” he shouted into the phone. I also learned while doing research for my article—and by research, I mean drinking at various waterfront bars, asking if anyone had any good pirate stories—about Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s September 19. According to the organizers’ Website, the date was chosen because it is the birthday of the ex-wife of one of the founders and, therefore, a date he could remember. Which is funny if you live in Oregon, like they do, but might explain why it’s not widely observed in the Caribbean, what with it being smack in the middle of hurricane season and all. These days, you can even choose “Pirate” as a language option on Facebook.)
But back to the real pirate.
A few nights before our meeting, Bill was playing horseshoes at Skinny Legs and I pointed him out to a little boy who was eating dinner with his family. Four-year-old Spencer from Connecticut went over and shook the intriguing-looking man’s leathery hand, then ran back to the table with his report: “He said his name was Pirate Bill!” he said, wide-eyed. “He said he had to dive down to get the treasure!”
Now it is my turn. I am in my beat-up Suzuki Sidekick, driving down the road toward Johnson Bay with Pirate Bill riding shotgun. We are talking about treasure. Real treasure. The treasure that Pirate Bill helped salvage off the Atocha, the famous Spanish galleon that sank off the Florida Keys in 1622, doomed by a hurricane that proved far more deadly than swashbuckling privateers.
I pull off to the side of the road and we get out of the car, squeeze through a half-open gate, and walk down a little path to the water. We come to a clearing nestled among mangroves and sea grape trees that is furnished with two old lawn chairs, a chaise lounge, a beautifully crafted table, and a hammock. It is decorated with coral, driftwood, some old fishing net and, literally, assorted flotsam and jetsam from Hurricane Marilyn and who knows how many other disasters at sea. It has a perfect ocean view.
“Nice spot,” I say.
“Pirate’s Beach Club,” Pirate Bill replies, inviting me to sit down.
He cracks open two Elephants and leans forward to give me a closer view of the small chain of gold links dangling from his left ear.
“This is the first gold we discovered,” he explains, recounting the thrill of recovering what was an eight-foot gold chain draped over a barrel sponge in about 40 feet of water off the coast of Key West.
Pirate Bill learned to dive in Las Vegas in the mid-60s, putting him among the first generation of SCUBA divers. He never intended to go treasure hunting. He moved to Key West, he says, to buy a sailboat, with the goal of impressing “little hippie girls” and maybe doing some bootlegging.
He got his boat, a 30-foot motor/sailboat named Evasion (“A good smuggling ship,” he confides), and wound up connecting with the legendary shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher.
We talked about the early days of the hunt, in the 70s, when there wasn’t much money or much faith in the expedition.
“When we had enough gas we’d go out looking,” he said. “When we ran out of gas we came back.”
In 1985, more than 350 years after the Atocha’s demise, Fisher’s team uncovered the mother lode. 250,000 pieces of eight. 47 tons of silver. 150,000 gold coins and bars. Thousands of uncut emeralds, some of them golf-ball sized. Not just the King’s Loot, to use Pirate Bill’s term for the treasure duly recorded on the manifest, but tons of illicit loot too, stuffed in cannons and lockers by the plundering crew.
“We were hauling up so much treasure that we were offloading onto other boats.”
So that silver around his neck?
Spanish coins. A piece of one, a piece of two. And a piece of eight from the Atocha.
Bill grew up in Detroit, his closest pirate connection being his father, described by Bill as a math genius who, naturally, became a bookie. Dad got rich, with a little help from the mob, beginning what Bill calls his “charmed life.”
“I’ve been retired pretty much all my life,” he says. “I was an only-child-spoiled-brat who could do no wrong. But I was raised well.”
His life before St. John included a business running coin-operated pool tables in Vegas and British Columbia, some time in the Army (“hated every minute of it”), a stop at the University of Arizona, a stint working for the L.A. County roads department, a marriage, and three children. He left the Keys when they started getting overdeveloped, bought a $45 plane ticket to St. Croix and soon after ended up in Coral Bay.
He says he doesn’t really like to read or write or watch TV. He describes himself as a loner, who likes to think.
“Do you still go diving?” I ask. “Sailing? Swimming?”
He shakes his head.
“No,” he says.
Then he makes a real confession:
“I’m not much of a water person.”
To recap, the pirate doesn’t like the ocean, and his biggest treasure haul was legit.
“OK, well what is it about the pirate life that you identify with?” I ask.
“The pirates of the Caribbean were the first democracy on earth,” he responds.
He launches into some background on pirate codes and constitutions.
“It’s pretty well documented,” he informs the reporter.
Looks like the pirate was going to make me do some real research after all.
“Traditional buccaneers operated as a democracy.” (Answers.com)
“Historians are taking a second look at the seafaring thieves…To be sure, pirates were not generally nice guys. But at a time of tyranny in most countries, they elected their own captains, divided up their booty fairly, offered an early version of workmen’s compensation and gave black slaves a rare chance to live free.” (Associated Press)
And from the new Pirate Soul museum in Key West:
“Many of the social contracts were remarkably democratic for their time and place in the world. As pirates, sailors had an unprecedented level of control of their destiny.”
Dusk has turned to dark and the no-see-ums are biting with purpose. Our interview is about finished.
“I’ve had an excellent life,” Pirate Bill concludes.
“I’m able to do what I want to do and I’m responsible for my own actions and if I go out with other people, I have to give them a vote.”
He has just summed up what might be the prevailing code of this island, where most people feel a freedom to live by their own rules.
Whether you’re a visitor or a resident, you should always keep your eyes open for pirates. If you’re lucky, they’ll take you out for an adventure on the high seas. You might catch a glimpse of real treasure. Or maybe, if they’re the kind of pirates who don’t really like the water all that much, they’ll invite you back to their secret hideouts, where you can sit in silence and watch the sun go down, with a really good beer.