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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
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 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 efforts. A 27-meter replica of the Black Pearl, with room for 70 tourists, eight crew, and six bronze cannons was listed for sale online at $2 million but later reduced to $750,000.
In 2009 the cost to build a replica of Blackbeard's sloop Adventure, a much smaller ship, 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 Revengeat $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. Pirate crews typically worked for a share of the plunder, but this is the 2010s, when even cutthroats expect a regular paycheck.
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 401K contributions arriving at an annual cost of $11.3 million—spreadsheet on request.
Costs for food, drink, 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 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 small 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.
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 are estimated to earn between $33,700 to $78,800 per year over a five-year career.
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? Somali pirates, unencumbered by romantic notions, use small skiffs capable of 25 knots. These typically operate in pairs sent from a mothership carrying fuel, ammunition, and supplies.
Somali pirates don't use cannons—just AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and such.
Cost? On the assumption it's all or mostly stolen, I'm guessing close to zip, 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? Lesson: For serious plunder, stick close to your desk and never go to sea.