A publication of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives

Cooperative Focus
Home | Cooperative Focus | Pirate Ships in Northern Neck

Pirate Ships in Northern Neck

Turning grief into a passion for reinvention

April 2023


by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer

Boaters cruising Lodge Creek in Callao — an unincorporated community east of Warsaw in rural Northumberland County on Virginia’s Northern Neck — may have to do a double-take if they get anywhere within viewing distance of Dan Corder’s house.

In addition to a series of buildings that include a replica firehouse, there are several pirate ships in various stages of construction in his yard and driveway, and two in the water at the end of his wharf.

Dubbed “Pirate’s Cove,” Corder’s property provides an eclectic setting for a passion: turning castoff boats into pirate ships. He says the swashbuckling creations began as a hobby and have evolved into what he now calls “a survival mechanism.”

Corder, a former Loudoun County firefighter and station captain who spent 34 years in fire service before retiring in 2010, says his hobby became more of a therapeutic endeavor after his beloved wife Denise died in 2016.

Dan and Denise Corder

“Denise was a trauma nurse and volunteer EMT. We met at one of the fire stations where I was assigned during my fire career. She worked on the trauma team caring for President Ronald Reagan when he was shot,” Corder recalls. “But she became disenchanted with mainstream medicine, got into holistic medicine, and became a holistic doctor. She treated people suffering from cancer, focusing on nutrition [and alternative therapies].”

Corder says it was a second marriage for both; each bringing two children into a blended family. A routine medical exam upended their world, revealing Denise’s stage III ovarian cancer diagnosis. Corder says Denise was bedridden for the last six months of her life.

“She died in my arms,” Corder says quietly.

A self-described “naturally glass-half-full sort of guy,” he was devastated. “I was in a very dark place. It was just me and the dog we had gotten several months before she died. I was in a place I had never been,” he says. “I didn’t want to get out of bed and lost any motivation to do anything. I thought, if I don’t get out of bed, I will be joining Denise.”

Creating pirate ships from old and discarded boats was something he said he had started doing years earlier. But now it became his lifeline.

Corder, who always dreamed of owning a house on the water, discovered Callao when he saw a “for sale” newspaper ad for “an old, rundown waterfront property” in the 1990s.

“I went to look at it because it was $58,000 and I could afford that. All the windows were knocked out and raccoons were living in it, but I bought it. Every time I was off from work, I came here and worked on it,” he says. “I love Callao. It reminds me of where I grew up, in Ashburn in Northern Virginia, back when it was still a rural farming community.”

“I saw Ashburn go from 140 people and farms to over 400,000 people and data centers in nine years. I was a fire station captain in Ashburn for 14 years, and I saw the tremendous growth— and some of the negative behavior that comes from that.”


“I am a repurposer of boats. I can look at an old boat and in about fifteen minutes, I will have a vision of what it will look like.” — Dan Corder


Dan Corder doing what he does best, bringing something back to life.

He laughs that his journey to Callao involved “a lot of dumb luck. ”Working on the old house he’d bought for years on weekends, he befriended neighbor Bart Bartholomew, a retired World War II naval commander with stories about naval life. His stories included memories of time spent around the now-infamous Bikini Atoll, where American nuclear tests in the 1940s-‘50s pushed some native islanders off their land and wreaked radiation havoc in the area for decades.

Bartholomew spent weekends in a nearby 1950s brick house that needed work on a beautiful waterfront point of land. Corder helped him with many projects, refusing payment for his work. He admired the property, joking to Bartholomew that if he ever won the lottery, he’d buy it.

“We became close friends. He had told me that one by one, his shipmates came down with cancer. One day I got a phone call and he said, ‘My turn,’ telling me he’d been diagnosed and wanted me to have the house,” Corder recalls. “I told him I was getting ready to retire and didn’t want to enter retirement with a mortgage. He offered the house to me for about half its appraisal [value].”


Corder felt uneasy about the offer, but Bartholomew kept calling. Finally Corder talked with Bartholomew’s grown son who told him, “Dad is in full-time hospice care and it would help us to get this squared away.” A contract was drawn up and shortly after closing, Bartholomew died.

Corder had created his first pirate boat in 1999 after another neighbor, the late Skinny Beasley, gave him an old barge that kept sinking and had to be pumped out.

“Skinny was a legend. He probably built half the docks you see in the Northern Neck,” Corder explains. “The night he gave me the barge I thought, what am I going to do with this thing? I decided to make it into a pirate ship.”

He laughs, “It was the most gaudy-looking thing you’ve ever seen. I rigged it up with a motor and when you saw it you’d think, ‘how is that thing floating?’” One day a stranger who saw the boat visited and asked, “How much do you want for it?”

Corder remembers, “I told him it wasn’t for sale. The man said ‘if you were going to sell it, how much would you take?’ I said $10,000 and then the man replied, ‘who do I make the check out to?’”

That pirate ship wound up at Smith Mountain Lake in Moneta, Va. Aftfter that, Corder started buying old boats and transforming them into pirate ships.

“Most were destined for the dump,” he says. “Marinas still contact me regularly; we have five marinas close by and people will rent slips and abandon their boats. The marina usually then sells the boat for past due slip fees.”


To date, Corder has transformed 33 boats into custom-built pirate ships, including one he kept for himself. Buyers include a tour-boat operation in Islamorada in the Florida Keys that bought a pontoon boat-turned-pirate ship and an Alabama homeowner who bought a smaller pirate boat to serve as a floating bar in his swimming pool. Prices generally run from $5,000-$8,000.

Corder emphasizes, “I am a repurposer of boats. I can look at an old boat and in about fifteen minutes, I will have a vision of what it will look like. I use old porch columns for masts and go to thrift stores [for boat parts]. The biggest problem is getting skeletons. I will get fifteen or twenty around Halloween, but other times I run short. I might have six on one boat. I build [the ships] dirt cheap so most I only break even on … sometimes I lose money.”

Customers Lauren and Kellen DeMarco of Mosely, Va., saw one of Corder’s boats online last August. They drove to Callao to see the houseboat-turned- pirate-ship, Corder’s largest and most expensive pirate creation— and bought it.

With no place to dock the vessel, Corder told them about a nearby vacant waterfront house. The DeMarcos bought the circa 1920 house—once home to Benjamin Franklin Lewis, a waterman who invented the crab pot — restored it, and now dock their pirate ship there; both the ship and the house are rented as vacation accommodations via their website jollylodgerva.com.

The DeMarcos have three children and own other vacation rentals in Hampton and Lake O’ the Woods near Fredericksburg. They have become close to Corder, their new neighbor. Lauren DeMarco says, “The reception to the pirate boat has been great. We’ve done a lot of media stuff [regarding it], including Access Hollywood with Mario Lopez. The boat has 1,000 followers on its own Facebook page.”

“When you are faced with something that rocks your world, you either surrender to it as so many do, or you take a more meaningful pathway.” — Dan Corder

PHOTO BY JIM ROBERTSONAnother project now complete, his garage-turned-firehouse, Corder says, “It reminds me daily of the life I once had. I bought the fire truck, identical to one I served on, for $5,000 from a Warsaw scrapyard—it didn’t run but now it does, and I take it to Food Lion to get groceries.”

Corder acknowledges that if his wife Denise were still alive, he might be in a different place. In addition to his pirate boat avocation, he tries to give back to the Callao community. “Denise did not want a traditional funeral, so we hosted a life celebration at our house,” he says. “There was no place here to do anything like that. So I bought this old abandoned golf course with a building that had been a restaurant, restored it and now it’s Rivah Celebration Center,” he says.

The center features a commercial kitchen and is available for rental for other celebrations, weddings and any other recreational activities for $175 per hour. Most weddings run $1,200- $1,500 and life celebrations usually cost anywhere from $650 to $700. Corder says Callao was booming in the 1940s and 1950s, with a movie theater, a bowling alley and a ballfield that hosted weekend games.

“We had a grocery store in town in business for 78 years; but when the pandemic hit, the family [owners] closed it. By 2022 it was becoming a blight on the town so I purchased it and incentivized a company out of South Carolina to reopen it,” he explains.

“They will soon drop $1.2 million to make it a Family Dollar-Dollar Tree hybrid store. I have spent years trying to resuscitate both buildings and boats in Callao.”

Corder says creating the pirate ships and giving back to Callao has given him purpose amid grief.

“When you are faced with something that rocks your world, you either surrender to it as so many do, or you take a more meaningful pathway,” he says quietly. “You need to find a passion that gives you purpose. The grief never goes away, but Denise wanted me to be happy and to honor her, I’m staying happy.”