Except for the gang of giddy men and women covered in skulls-and-crossbones and sipping from cups of rum in the corner, the Rum Bar at Panama Hattie’s looks like any other tropical-themed watering hole. Typically, this group can be found wearing velvet coats, corsets and peasant shirts, but on this 90-degree day in North Palm Beach, the crew has settled on pirate-themed tank tops and T-shirts.

“I typically come walking into a bar with my pirate flags, and we just throw ’em down in the sand and mark our territory for where we’ll be partying that night,” says Capt. Johnny Ringo, a bearded, 6-foot-4 man who bears a striking resemblance to rum icon Captain Morgan.

By night, Ringo is the leader of the Pirateheads, a group of men and women, aged 28 to 48, who dress up as pirates and “invade” local happy hours at the Rum Bar and the two Pirate Republic bars in Fort Lauderdale. By day, Ringo is a treasure hunter for Seafarer Exploration Corp.

“I’m the dive-team leader,” Ringo says. “The company rents a house in Tequesta. We keep our boats there. We’ve got a 26-foot Hydra-Sport, which is what we call our anchor boat, or chase boat, and we’ve got a 46-foot vessel, The Iron Maiden. And then, we’ve got the Virgalona, which was Mel Fisher’s boat.”

The Virgalona is a 55-foot vessel that Ringo believes has seen more treasures on its deck than any other treasure boat in U.S. history. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kane Fisher, Mel Fisher’s son,” Ringo says of the famed treasure-hunting family. “I think this is the fifth time the ship has been redone. The second or third time they were repairing the boat, they found a couple coins from the Atocha shoved between slats of wood. We’ve also found an emerald stashed in a Prell shampoo bottle that someone left behind. It’s a great job.”

The wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha — a Spanish galleon hauling New World treasure back to the motherland that sank in a hurricane off Key West in 1622 — was the Fisher family’s greatest find. Forty tons of silver and gold came to $450 million, and after a lengthy legal battle over rights to the wreck that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Fishers finally won their case and never had to work a day again. That rags-to-riches tale has drawn in more than a few treasure-seekers since, including Ringo.

Prior to his pirate life, Ringo owned a granite business. “A couple years ago, I woke up and decided I didn’t want to do that anymore because of competition and the economy. So I had a partner and decided to build a pirate ship,” he recalls.

A trailer-hauled, 25-foot Spanish galleon replica with 10 smoking cannons and a 24-and-a-half-foot mast, the ship never sailed. But working on it five days a week for three months inspired Ringo to abandon the 9-to-5 lifestyle.

Ringo says that to become a Piratehead, a person must meet certain criteria, such as “owning a pirate hat, loving water — especially with scotch — and to own a boat, have a friend with a boat or be able to spell the word boat.”

Originally from Daytona Beach but now a resident of North Palm Beach, Ringo started a Pirateheads Facebook group this past January with his girlfriend, Rachel Gibson. It now includes nearly 1,200 members in Florida, California, New York and other states.

“This all started after I got an e-mail on Facebook to join the Parrotheads,” Ringo says, referencing fans of the pirate-loving singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. “I got the idea to start the Pirateheads. I had already been organizing weekend getaways for years with friends, so I thought, ‘Why not do it on a larger scale?’ ”

About 100 Pirateheads meet up the third Tuesday of every month at the Rum Bar. They also schedule frequent party-bus trips from North Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, Key West and Sebastian. Ringo and Gibson never miss a meet-up.

“What I enjoy most about Pirateheads is the camaraderie,” Gibson says. “Everyone that is in the group has the same mindset, and it’s simple — to have fun and enjoy our lifestyle and laid-back attitude. It’s cool to see people who would’ve otherwise never met each other becoming great friends.”

Gibson says her and Ringo’s closets are bursting with pirate garb. Friends have made them costumes, and the couple also has purchased outfits from sites such as Tobeapirate.com.

“Dressing like a pirate is empowering,” Gibson notes. “It’s amazing how favorably others react to it and how inquisitive people are when you walk into an event or a bar dressed up.”

For some Pirateheads, dressing as a pirate has made them more social. “Putting on pirate clothes definitely brought out my alter ego,” says GinaMarie Lane of Delray Beach. “People will yell at us and give us a thumbs-up when we’re walking down the street.”

Ringo got into dressing as a pirate a few years ago, when he asked a friend to sew him a coat like Captain Morgan’s. “There are two different kinds of pirate garb,” Ringo explains. “There’s Halloween stuff and more-authentic garb. I’m still perfecting my pirate garb. My latest shirt is more puffy than Seinfeld’s. I’ve also got a shirt that feels like it weighs 20 pounds.”

Looking like a pirate doesn’t come cheap. “Some spend $5,000 or $6,000 on their outfits,” says Roberto Guerios, owner of the Pirate Republic bars on Fort Lauderdale Beach and on the New River downtown. “I used to sell some of these outfits on the beach. When these guys come into the bar all dressed up with swords and black-powder guns, everybody loves it.”

Guerios, who hosts pirate parties the last Saturday of every month at his bars, developed a fondness for pirate culture after living on a sailboat for several years in the Caribbean. “We have all kinds of groups coming from Palm Beach and Key West,” he says.

One perk of becoming a Piratehead is getting a nickname. Piratehead Anita Mixon was dubbed Anita Treasure one night over a rum bucket.

“It’s fun seeing everyone trying to figure out what’s going on when we appear in our pirate garb,” Mixon says. “It is particularly satisfying to see the kids’ reactions when we’ve gone to events in Vero Beach and Melbourne.”

Ringo is organizing a Piratehead excursion to a local children’s hospital that he hopes will take place in the next few months. “Not all pirates throughout history were bad. We’d like to be pirates who give something back,” Ringo says. “A drench-the-wench contest for charity wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. But to be a Piratehead, the main rule is remembering there’s no such thing as too much fun or too much rum.”

Contact Joanie Cox at jcox@citylinkmagazine.com.

This story was originally published June 15, 2010.