A live radio broadcast plays over the loudspeakers as a local deejay enthusiastically encourages listeners to come down to the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth. Adults and children walking through the museum’s conservation laboratory can be heard marveling at the concretions encased in fish tanks, each preserved with fresh water.
It’s the end of August, a few days before Labor Day, and there is a buzz of excitement inside the Cape’s newest cultural attraction. Patrons are embarking on a high seas adventure, all within the confines of a 12,000-square-foot building on Route 28.
Amid this bustling scene, Chris Macort, director of the Whydah exhibit, hands me a coin, roughly the size of a quarter. And it is at that moment when the background noise escapes into the periphery. I am lost in this one small, imperfect coin, as time stands still for a few seconds. “There’s nobody else in the world that is holding pirate treasure right now except for you,” Macort tells me. “I guarantee it. That is solid silver and that is what they were after.”
There is a power to history, particularly when it can be seen and held and touched. And when it is as rare as the coin Macort gave me at the Whydah, the experience becomes even more magical. “This is the only pirate treasure on land. It’s here. There is no other,” says underwater explorer and Whydah Museum founder Barry Clifford during a tour of the facility, which opened in June 2016.
Clifford should know. He is the one who first dove down to the site where the Whydah Galley now rests, back in November 1982.
Start of an Adventure
Back then, Clifford says, “My goal was adventure. If it wasn’t adventurous, if it wasn’t dangerous, I basically wasn’t interested. It was in a place called the graveyard, where over 3,000 ships had wrecked and it had really tantalized my sense of adventure, along with the other guys I was involved with.” One of those "other guys" was John F. Kennedy Jr.
It would not be until two years after that first dive that Clifford and his crew could officially lay claim to discovering the Whydah. Countless trips to the site, located just off Wellfleet, have taken place since. “If you add the days up, I’ve spent many years of my life on that site,” Clifford says. “It’s just such an incredibly beautiful place.”
And it is at this beautiful place, in Cape waters, that Clifford uncovered a pirate’s booty unlike any other. The Whydah sits under 50 feet of water and 20 feet of sand, holding 300-year-old secrets that Clifford and his team are only starting to unearth.
Those secrets can be witnessed in the museum’s collection of artifacts that encompass cannons, pistols, gaming tokens, navigational equipment and even the leg bone and shoe of the Whydah’s youngest mate, John King, who was somewhere between the age of 8 and 11 when the Whydah went down in a nor’easter in April 1717. On the late summer day I visited the museum, Macort was most enthusiastic about the recent discovery of a four-sided wax seal wheel that likely belonged to the original captain of the Whydah, Lawrence Prince, before the ship was overtaken by pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew in 1717.
A Childhood Dream
Just a few hundred yards away from the Whydah Pirate Museum is the popular Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf, which consists of two 18-hole mini-golf courses. There, pirate lore comes to life as you putt under cascading waterfalls, over footbridges and through caves, all in sight of a recently renovated half-sunken pirate ship that greets motorists traveling on Route 28.
Since 1983, the course has delighted visitors to the Cape looking to plunder one of the region’s favorite summer pastimes – miniature golf. But the course offers more than just recreation, turning a land of make-believe into reality. Jeanmarie Varanelli, manager of the Pirate’s Cove Marketplace adjacent to the course explains the allure of the swashbuckling world this way: “I think every kid has always wanted to be a pirate. Kids are fascinated by the adventure and the excitement.”
One town over in Hyannis, kids can fulfill those dreams thanks to Cape Cod Pirate Adventures, a real-life ocean excursion that allows young ones to become marauders—of the friendly type—for a short time as they search for sunken treasure in Hyannis Harbor.
Along the way, there is a good chance the young crew aboard the Sea Gypsy will encounter a rogue pirate and do battle with him, shooting water cannons at their foe. “We have an underwater treasure, secret maps and fighting pirates,” says Noreen Couture, assistant office manager for Pirate Adventures. “We say it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure they’ll be talking about for years to come.”
What Cape Cod Pirate Adventures does all summer long, the Cape Cod Children’s Museum and the Cape Cod Maritime Museum fit into one day each July (July 30, 2017). Dubbed Pillage the Village, the co-sponsored event is held entirely on land in downtown Hyannis, and features such pirate-themed merriment as crafts, a costume parade and a scavenger hunt. “This is the family version of pillaging,” says Adrienne Baumann, director of marketing for the children’s museum. “It’s a lot of fun.”
A similar atmosphere can be found at the Cape Codder Resort & Spa’s annual Pirate & Princess weekend, set for May 2017 and again in November, when the Hyannis hotel transforms itself into a junior sea dog’s fantasy. Kids will have a chance to zoom down 80-foot water slides, craft their own swords, hunt for treasure, and eat, drink and be merry at an evening ball.
And history comes alive on a sightseeing adventure with Blue Claw Boat Tours out of Orleans, where you’ll hear stories of pirates, buried treasure and shipwrecks off the coast of Cape Cod, all while you cruise by seals, salt marshes and sand dunes.
More to be discovered
Though there is a lightheartedness to a large part of Cape Cod’s pirate offerings, its latest one—the Whydah Pirate Museum—shows there is much to be learned about these plunderers of the sea. “I knew they had robbed many different ships, and obviously the treasure was one of the things as a kid I had heard about,” Clifford says. “But then, when we really got into this, we realized the history of the ship was the treasure and why we had to preserve it. And that is what this museum is all about.”
While the museum is still in its infancy, Clifford promises there will be more to come in the ensuing years with plans to add an 18th-century pirate village and expand the actual building as more artifacts are uncovered. Clifford and his team expect to excavate the Whydah site for another 50 years, meaning that there is still lots to learn about the fascinating world of pirates and their ties to Cape Cod.