It seems pirates have made a comeback, and so with great excitement, and possibly a bit of delusion, I've decided to become one. How much would it cost to buy or commission a ship of the line, fully stocked with cannons, cannonballs, food, muskets, rifles, gunpowder, and crew of 300? Is it legal to purchase all of this?
Howard Grao, London
We need to think this through, Howard. I understand the appeal of piracy in the Jack Sparrow mold, although I personally could skip the eyeliner. However, one must ask whether tricorn-and-parrot-type piracy is a paying proposition in the modern age.
Let’s start with the ship. I’m assuming you want a classic wooden vessel, and from your specifications I gather you want something huge, on the order of Blackbeard’s pride, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. While this isn’t something you can price on Amazon, we can make estimates based on other reconstruction efforts. A 27-meter replica of the Black Pearl, with room for 70 tourists, eight crew, and six functional bronze cannons, was listed for sale online at $2 million a while back but later reduced to $750,000. In 2009 the cost to build a replica of Blackbeard’s sloop Adventure, a much smaller ship than the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was estimated at $3.7 million. Since that was an 80-ton ship, I’ll take a flyer and project the cost to reconstruct the 200-to-300 ton Revenge at $11.6 million.
Next, the crew. Most pirate ships were fairly small, with maybe a dozen guns and crews of around 50, but some carried crews of more than 200, and the Queen Anne’s Revenge carried 300 to 400. You want 300, let’s figure payroll for 300. Pirate crews back in the day typically worked for a share of the plunder, but this is the 2010s, when even cutthroats expect a regular paycheck. In addition to general-purpose crew, you’re going to need a captain, first mate, quartermaster, boatswain, and so on. To estimate your likely outlay, I took current U.S. Navy pay rates and multiplied them by 1.4 to cover everything from Social Security and Medicare to 401(k) contributions (look, be glad I didn’t include stock options), arriving at an annual cost of $11.3 million — spreadsheet on request.
Costs for food, drink, toiletries, and other essentials can be estimated by a standard business contractor per diem charge of $75 per person per day, or about $8.2 million. Total crew costs: about $19.5 million per year.
OK, cannons. It may surprise you to learn that, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, muzzleloading cannons are legal to own, so long as they don’t use exploding shells and the shot, powder, and primer are all separately loaded. The Queen Anne’s Revenge sported up to 40 cannon plus numerous swivel guns and other smaller arms. A full-size 32- to 36-pound iron cannon costs about $22,000, and cannon-grade black powder is about $15 per pound. At five to six pounds of powder per shot, firing 40 guns (let’s say) 250 times per voyage would require 55,000 pounds of powder, or about $825,000. Throwing in the price of cannonballs, we get a total armaments cost of about $5.6 million.
So with the ship, crew, food and sundries, and cannon, powder, and shot, you’re looking at around $36 million for a one-year voyage. Is this a cost-effective expenditure of scarce resources?
Back to our spreadsheets. The direct ransoms paid to all real-life Somali pirates were $80 million in 2010, $135 million in 2011. Individual Somali pirates have been estimated to earn somewhere between $33,700 to $78,800 per year over a five-year career. (This is more than 60 times the annual earnings of the average lawfully employed Somali, which tells you why piracy has enjoyed a resurgence.) If we take your crew of 300 and assume a median earning potential, you might be able to take in $17 million annually. In other words, after the first year, even if things go well by the standards of modern piracy, you’ll still be $19 million in the hole.
Is there a cheaper way? Of course. Somali pirates, unencumbered by romantic notions, use small skiffs capable of 25 knots (although no successful attack has been perpetrated against a target vessel traveling faster than 18 knots). These typically operate in pairs sent from a mothership carrying fuel, ammunition, other supplies, and any hostages previously obtained.
Somali pirates don’t use cannons — just AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and that kind of thing. When they get close enough, they try to board using hooked poles, ropes and grapnels, or lightweight ladders. (Ships with a freeboard of eight meters or more and a reasonably stouthearted crew are largely immune to such assaults.)
Cost? On the assumption it’s all or mostly stolen, I’m guessing close to zip, making for a much more attractive return on investment, assuming you’re OK with the possibility of bloody death.
But give that last part some thought, Howard. How many pirates in expensive suits were punished in any way whatsoever for their role in the recent financial meltdown? My advice: For serious plunder, stick close to your desk and never go to sea.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.