HUDSON, Fla. - Beard sweeping across his chest like tongues of black flame, Capt. Henry D. Alwardt Jr. can present a formidable figure. Until you notice the eyes with their twinkle and the arms that can't keep from cuddling pooches Oreo and Mr. Bones.
A mellow, caring version of the early 18th-century English pirate Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Alwardt, aka Capt. Blackbeard, holds court in his Hudson home surrounded by pirate and parrot figurines. The 68-year-old retiree has parlayed that black facial hair, which makes him resemble the infamous freebooter, into a second act.
These days, Alwardt, who holds a 100-ton captain's license, conducts, among other functions, funerals and weddings at sea on his two boats, a 33-foot party barge and a 33-foot pontoon houseboat.
His excursions leave from the public boat ramp on Clark Street in Hudson.
For "spreading," or throwing human ashes into the water in Hudson Channel, Alwardt leaves the bravado of Blackbeard behind for respectful ceremonies that follow clients' wishes.
A former commercial fisherman and towing and marine salvage business owner, Alwardt conducts both religious and secular services, depending on the needs of clients.
During the ceremony, ashes, which are in a dissolvable urn, are tossed into the water. While waiting the 15 minutes it takes for the urn to dissolve, clients often share memories of the deceased.
Some clients bring champagne and toast the departed when the ashes finally reach the water.
Dolphins often appear during funerals. Alwardt is sure the animals' appearance is no accident.
He describes a dolphin swimming up to the boat, with the animal's large eyes looking directly at him during a recent funeral. "They know," he said.
Clients often find the waters healing, he noted. "By the time they get back from the gulf, I think they find that sense of peace."
Alwardt has seen interest in funerals at sea pick up since he first spread his uncle's ashes in the waters in Key Largo, where he then lived, in the 1970s.
"People can't afford that big funeral any more," he said.
Marriages at sea have always been popular, he noted. They run the gamut in styles, he said, from secular to religious. He recently had one in which the bride and her attendants all wore formal wedding attire and a priest conducted the service on the boat.
Usually, though, Alwardt officiates and as a notary, signs the marriage license.
About half the marriage clients request he appear as Capt. Blackbeard.
Under Alwardt's hand, Blackbeard becomes a charming rogue.
The native of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts slips easily into a Scottish brogue. "When I get rolling, it just comes out," he said.
He has been invited to appear at festivals, pirate parties and schools.
"Little kids have always got to pull my beard to see if it's real," he said. "Very seldom are they afraid."
They evidently see past that fierce pirate face into the gentle heart.
He is a Christian, Alwardt said, and uses his Blackbeard character as a way to bring people laughter and entertainment.
"I believe God put me here for a reason," he said.
For more information on Alwardt's cruises call 727-389-0449.