The Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team successfully deployed the Aj’s Blackbeard Pirate Ship as the newest artificial reef off the Destin-Fort Walton Beach coast on Monday, October 30.
- The steel-hulled vessel was donated by Alan Laird, owner of Aj’s Seafood & Oyster Bar in Destin. According to Laird, the ship had been a fixture in the harbor for 15-18 years and was previously known as the ‘Flying Eagle.’
“I don’t remember how long my neighbor owned it, but I picked it up probably 10-12 years ago,” Laird said. “We had a great business running it. We re-skinned the whole thing, and put a whole new hull in it.”
Laird said the ship was being repaired in a boatyard when it caught fire from someone cutting a metal plate, destroying the wooden interior and equipment.
“It was a catastrophe,” he said.
After unsuccessfully trying to rebuild it, Laird decided to scuttle the Blackbeard and bought a different wooden schooner for his tourism business.
The Blackbeard was a popular vessel, Laird said, used for Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival, excursions from his restaurant and sunset cruises before the fire.
- “Blackbeard was a boat that I had for a long time and just couldn’t seem to get the thing back where I needed it to be,” he said.
When the opportunity came up to turn it into an artificial reef, Laird jumped at the chance to partner with the Okaloosa Coastal Resource team. Laird is no stranger to sinking artificial reefs. He previously sank the Harbor Belle, which was originally a restaurant-barge on the harbor. Additionally, he acquired a large water basin from Eglin Air Force Base and used it to enhance more than 300 chicken coop deployments over the years.
“Fishing, and our fishermen, is Destin’s culture and is what makes this town what it is,” Laird said. “So by being able to put Blackbeard down on the bottom means everything.”
Laird said the steel ship standing upright on the seabed will attract both bottom fish like grouper, while also attracting mackerel and cobia higher up.
- “We’ve had great success in the past, and I’m looking for great success when we sink this one,” he added.
Laird said the partnership continues the ship’s tourism legacy above and below the waves.
“It covers two spans of tourism, so it continues to be a vital part of the community, along with the fishing and diving industry,” he said.
Laird said he is happy to partner with the county on this artificial reef deployment and said he’d be open for other opportunities that may arise in the future.
“They [Coastal Resource Team] have resourced so many wrecks and fishing reefs. This vessel will join a big area that’s been turned into a whole boatyard down there,” Laird said. “And partnering with Alex Fogg and the Coastal Resource Team has been tremendous.”
Before Monday’s deployment, the Blackbeard was in its final cleanup stages at Morgan Marine in Freeport. Coastal Resource Manager Alex Fogg explained that all debris was removed and that the steel hull is intact.
- The ship will join the Cordanzo tugboat sunk earlier this year at the county’s Yacht Club artificial reef site about 16 miles offshore, according to Fogg.
“In recent years, our artificial reef program has really taken off,” Fogg said. “And a lot of folks have been coming to us wanting to partner on these projects by providing vessels to us for free like this.”
Community partnerships like the one is vital for the success of the county’s artificial reef program, Fogg said. And given the Blackbeard’s history with tourism, it’s only right that it transforms into an artificial reef.
“It’s come full circle,” added Fogg. “It’s only appropriate that its final resting place is in the Gulf of Mexico, making more habitat for the fish that people like to see while diving and fishing.”
If you’re looking to explore the Blackbeard, here are the coordinates:
- 30° 08.340 N, 86° 33.897 W
Full list of reefs are here: https://www.destinfwb.com/explore/eco-tourism/artificial-reefs/