So each man to his gun,

For the work must be done

With cutlass, sword or pistol.

And when we no longer can strike a blow,

Then fire the magazine, boys, and up we go!

It's better to swim in the sea below

Than to swing in the air and feed the crow,

Says jolly Ned Teach of Bristol.

It was 275 years ago this month that Blackbeard the pirate -- blasphemous and defiant to the end -- met his demise at the Battle of Ocracoke Inlet. He left behind a legend that inspired ballads, plays and tall tales. Ben Franklin, as a lad of 12, may have penned the above ditty. Today, Blackbeard's still a celebrity.

Edward "Ned" Teach, the infamous Blackbeard, met his ignoble end at the hands of a mercenary British force on Nov. 22, 1718, but his presence still haunts the northeast coast of North Carolina. Despite his unsavory reputation, more than one coastal settlement (and Chamber of Commerce) proudly claims a piece of North Carolina's own pirate, Blackbeard, the most notorious buccaneer of them all.

But it is on Ocracoke Island on the remote Outer Banks, and in the historical port of Bath about 75 miles northwest, that the legend of Blackbeard most fully comes alive. Here the pirate played out his fairly well-documented final years. Ocracoke was his favorite anchorage, his lair; Bath the scene of his semi-retirement, his pleasure garden. It was here, in this pirate's paradise, that the "Golden Age of Piracy" flourished briefly, then died.

What better excuse than a 275th anniversary to take a ramble through Blackbeard country? It is a trail rich in historical associations and colorful yarns, a journey back to early Colonial times through a lovely, timeless land.

By the time Blackbeard arrived in North Carolina in 1717, his reputation had been made in the Caribbean. According to Robert E. Lee's (no, not the general) "Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times," Teach already was feared as a fierce broad-shouldered buccaneer who was given to fits of cruelty. "A swaggering, merciless brute," an early scribe called him. But, it appears, much of Blackbeard's notoriety was cultivated image. The pirate was a master of psychological warfare, more often than not scaring the wits out of his prey without a fight. In a time of clean-shaven faces, his coal-black beard was perhaps his most fearsome weapon. One awed sea captain, writing in 1724, said the beard, "like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there {in} a long time."

While we know the exact details of Blackbeard's death, little is known for certain about his early years. Most historians refer to him as Edward Teach, but there are numerous recorded spellings of his last name -- Thatch, Thack and Tack, among others.

In any event, Ned Teach is said to have started out as a respectable, literate son of Bristol, with that British city's rich nautical history coursing through his veins. Like so many of its young men he went to sea, as a hired wartime privateer.

Sailing out of Jamaica, Teach earned a reputation for boldness during Queen Anne's War, also known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713). He turned to piracy after the war's end, making himself a celebrity by besting a British man-of-war in one confrontation. By 1717, he was working his way up the American coast on his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge.

In Ocracoke, Blackbeard found a barren outpost strategically placed near North Carolina's major shipping lanes. All oceangoing vessels leaving or destined for settlements in northeastern North Carolina had to pass through Ocracoke Inlet, then the only gap in the string of barrier islands now called the Outer Banks. Blackbeard anchored at what has come to be known as Teach's Hole, on the sound side of the Ocracoke Island, near the southern end where the village sits today. Depending on whom you ask, this cove is found just off Springer Point or, because of shifting barrier island sands, just under the point. Teach's Hole Channel passes nearby.

Local folklore has it that Blackbeard went so far as to give Ocracoke its name. The story, alas apocryphal, tells how Blackbeard, impatient for dawn and the battle it would bring, once cried out impatiently, "Oh, crow, cock!" O-cra-coke.

Today, the approach to the slender, 16-mile-long island is still by water. I arrived on the free ferry from Hatteras village to the north, a 40-minute trip. The village retains much of its funky out-of-the-way charm, despite attracting its share of tourists. Wrapped around pretty Silver Lake (really a large manmade harbor), Ocracoke is a hodgepodge of boutiques and motels fanning out to quaint neighborhoods set amid groves of cedar and live oak.

Reminders of Blackbeard abound. I stayed at Blackbeard's Lodge, the kind of rambling old (also cheap) inn in which I indulge when traveling without family. The Jolly Roger Pub, the village's only waterfront restaurant, offers snacks and sunsets over Silver Lake. (It also sells miniature pirate flags.)

Once settled, I headed, with trepidation, to the only Teach's Hole I could get to -- an establishment called Teach's Hole: The Pirate Shop, just around the bend from Blackbeard's Lodge. But if I expected tackiness, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Teach's Hole is part pirate specialty shop (curios, maps, videos, a great collection of pirate books) and part museum. For $1, you can tour George and Mickey Roberson's small yet authoritative exhibit, with paintings, etchings, weaponry and other artifacts. National Park Service rangers at the Ocracoke visitor's center offer short talks on Blackbeard, but for more detailed information they send the inquisitive to Teach's Hole.

Ocracoke's attractions go beyond Blackbeard and include the squat, whitewashed Ocracoke Lighthouse (the second oldest operational lighthouse in the United States, built in 1823), the National Park Service visitor center and the modest Ocracoke Museum, with vintage photos detailing island history. In the tiny, tranquil British Cemetery, a plot measuring 10 by 20 feet, four British sailors who washed ashore from the HMS Bedfordshire in May 1942 are buried.

From Ocracoke, I took a 2 1/2-hour ferry ride to Swanquarter on the mainland and drove about 30 miles through tiny hamlets and pleasant farmland to Bath. Blackbeard moved here in 1718, sailing up Pamlico Sound to picturesque Bath Bay, off the Pamlico River. King George, in an Act of Mercy, had offered amnesty to any pirates who swore off buccaneering, and Blackbeard had decided to settle down in Bath. Founded in 1704, this small frontier seaport town had become a political and commercial center of some importance in the sparsely settled colony.

Blackbeard cut an imposing figure in Bath. Robust, ribald and foul-tempered, with unmatched drinking prowess, he reportedly settled down to a life of merrymaking and some dissipation. Yet he could also be quite charming, and had a fondness for ladies and life's luxuries. It is said that Blackbeard took his fourteenth wife in Bath, but some historians say the previous mates were little more than pickups at different ports.

Bath's Main Street has no less than six historical markers, commemorating Blackbeard (of course), agricultural reformer and publisher John F. Tompkins, the first Post Road, the first public library in North Carolina, the James Adams Floating Theater (model for Edna Ferber's "Showboat") and the Georgian-style Palmer-Marsh House. The markers seem to outnumber businesses in the village by a wide margin. The only store I could find "downtown" was a lone gift shop.

But that was fine with me. I rambled the quiet streets, relaxed at the homey Bath Guest House overlooking Bath Creek, and hung out at Bonner Point, reading and ruminating about Blackbeard.

Ned Teach soon tired of semi-respectable life in Bath and resumed his raids. By September 1718, he was backsliding back at Ocracoke, whooping it up with a group of other pirates in what has been called the largest pirate jamboree in history. The party lasted for days and gave rise to rumors that Blackbeard was planning to build a fortress at Ocracoke Inlet. North Carolina Gov. Charles Eden looked the other way, but the news filtered back to Virginia's Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who was itching for an excuse to invade North Carolina and put an end to Blackbeard.

On the evening of Nov. 21, 1718, Blackbeard was aboard his ship Adventure, anchored in Ocracoke Inlet with a reduced crew. It's not clear whether he knew of Spotswood's two ships anchored nearby, waiting to attack at dawn.

I prefer to think that Blackbeard knew about the coming attack and took the time to put on his full battle dress: black clothing, with his beard plaited in little pigtails tied with colored ribbons. He was a walking arsenal, with half a dozen pistols, daggers and a large cutlass. The final touch was ingenious: thick fuses of hemp cord dipped in saltpeter and lime water, tucked into his hat, set afire and left to smolder during battle.

British Navy Lt. Robert Maynard made the first move, shouting out to Blackbeard that he intended to board by force.

Blackbeard hurled back his own threat: "Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarter or take any from you."

To which Maynard responded: "I expect no quarter from you, nor shall I give any."

The Battle of Ocracoke Inlet was a fierce one, made epic by the personal duel of Blackbeard and Maynard. Each man saluted the other with a gunshot, but only Maynard's was true. Blackbeard fought on, overcome only after absorbing -- according to Maynard's informal autopsy -- five bullet wounds and no less than 20 severe cuts. Maynard ordered Blackbeard's head severed and hung from the bowsprit of his sloop. The corpse was thrown overboard. Legend says the headless body swam around the ship several times before sinking. Teach was between 35 and 40 when he met his demise.

Piracy would continue sporadically for a while, but the Battle of Ocracoke Inlet is regarded as the Waterloo of the "Golden Age of Piracy."

But what of Blackbeard's treasure? Gold diggers have scoured the coast looking for buried treasure, and while some coins have been found, there is no proof they belonged to Blackbeard, a profligate man who probably had little wealth left to bury.

Still, legend has it that on the eve of his last battle, he was asked if his new bride knew where his treasure was buried. Blackbeard is said to have answered: "Nobody knows but m'self and the Devil, and may the longest liver take all."

I ended my Blackbeard jaunt in Nags Head, where I stopped at Blackbeard's Treasure Chest, a shell and curio shop on the causeway to Roanoke Island. Cynics might say it was an appropriate end, for if Blackbeard's treasure exists, it's in the countless shops and other businesses that capitalize on the Blackbeard and pirate theme.

I prefer to see Blackbeard's treasure in the legends that survive in North Carolina's Blackbeard country. They are a fitting legacy for America's most popular buccaneer. The most haunting are weird tales of Blackbeard's shade prowling the coast of North Carolina, in relentless pursuit of his severed head. Sometimes the ghost carries a lantern, so that mysterious lights are sometimes called "Teach's light."


GETTING THERE: Blackbeard's North Carolina is about a 350-mile drive from Washington, either by way of I-95 and I-64 or via U.S. Route 17 from Fredericksburg to Norfolk. From the Norfolk Beltway, take Route 168 (later 158) across the causeway to the Outer Banks, then Route 12 south of Nags Head to Hatteras.

The free car ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island (919-986-2353) takes 40 minutes and leaves hourly from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., with additional crossings at 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight. The return ferry leaves hourly from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., with additional crossings at 9 and 11 p.m. The ferry from Ocracoke to Swanquarter on the North Carolina mainland (919-928-3841) costs $10 for cars. Crossing time is 2 1/2 hours.

WHERE TO STAY: Ocracoke has a variety of lodgings, most within walking distance of the waterfront. Blackbeard's Lodge (P.O. Box 298, Ocracoke, N.C. 27960, 800-892-5314) is a bargain, with rooms running $45 in the old inn and $50 and up in the addition. It is open on a reservation basis in winter. The regular season starts in early April and runs through Dec. 1. The Bath Guest House (215 S. Main St., Bath, N.C. 27808, 919-923-6811) charges $50 for a double with shared bath and $55 for a double with private bath, including breakfast. It offers free docking and the use of canoe, rowboat and rickety bikes.

WHERE TO EAT: The Jolly Roger Pub offers calamari rings ($3.95), oyster sandwiches ($4.50) and Pete's Wicked Ale ($2.25). The pub closes for the winter, reopening in early April. Bath has limited dining choices, but some 20 miles northeast, in Belhaven, the River Forest Manor (600 E. Main St., Belhaven, N.C. 27810, 919-943-2151) serves a $12.95 65-dish smorgasbord from March through December, with a regular menu all year long. The manor also rents antique-furnished rooms for $65 to $75 a night.

RECOMMENDED READING: The most authoritative book on Blackbeard is Robert E. Lee's "Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times" (John F. Blair Publishers, 1984). "The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina," by Hugh F. Rankin, is a lively 72-page pamphlet put out by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History (Historical Publications Section, 109 E. Jones St., Raleigh, N.C. 27601, 919-733-7442; enclose $5.05). For imaginative retellings of the stories, try "Blackbeard and Other Pirates of the Atlantic Coast," by Nancy Roberts (John F. Blair Publishers, 1993).


Historic Bath State Historic Site, P.O. Box 148, Bath, N.C. 27808, 919-923-3971.

North Carolina Division of Travel and Tourism, 430 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh, N.C. 27611, 800-847-4862 or 919-733-4171.

Ocracoke Civic Club, P.O. Box 456, Ocracoke, N.C. 27960, 919-928-6711.

-- Joseph Cosco