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Sea of Thieves beneath the surface: How griefers who bullied me for hours became my best hearties

Surface-level Sea of Thieves is a far cry from the game that lies beneath – and I learned that the hard way.

When you think about it, we’ve got no right to get annoyed when someone nicks our loot in Sea of Thieves. To do so is to stoop to the same level as those people who apply to appear on the TV show 'Ex on the Beach' and then act floored when their ex turns up.

Still, there’s one incident on the high seas – those impossibly gorgeous rolling seas of Rare’s creation – that will stay with me forever. It captures all that’s brilliant and every horrible facet of the game at once. And it begins, as stories from the pirate MMO so often do, with a shape on the horizon.

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“Could be players”, says our navigator, using his spyglass while dangling over the ocean on the bow sprit, for some reason, instead of up in the crow’s nest. “Don’t think they’re heading our way though.”

We decide as a group, either by vocal confirmation or simply by not stopping playing the sodding drum the whole time, to continue onwards. We’re doing a vault for the Gold Hoarders – one of the most lucrative adventures available. First you go on the kind of irritatingly protracted wild goose chase that Rare mistakenly believes to be a vital component of any treasure hunt, then you turn up at a massive vault and rush gold, trinkets and chests out of the doors and onto your ship before the doors shut and leave you stuck inside like an inept Crystal Maze contestant. It will earn us many thousands of gold pieces. It’s worth risking a few dalliances with other players for.

“That ship’s back”, says our navigator over an hour and many nautical miles later. Looks like it’s trying to stay hidden behind those rocks.”

It’s at this point we start to brick it. We’ve got some sailing hours under our belts, but ship-to-ship combat has never been a strength of this group’s. Instead, we prefer words of affirmation about each other’s outfits, and to jump up and down in time with the music of someone’s hurdy-gurdy.

We flee, full sail ahead, objective compass be damned. And we think we’ve lost them. Then: “Hello.”

It’s a foreign voice, coming through game chat rather than our Discord. Someone is on our ship. “Hello guys.”

You know when you can just hear in someone’s voice that they’re having at least seven times more fun than you are, and at your exact expense? That. This guy is full of it. He’s not saying hello, not really. He’s saying 'I am on your boat and you can’t find me'. He’s absolutely right.

The four of us draw our swords and search the whole galleon, every deck. There’s no treasure on board yet, we haven’t even made it to the vault, but we can’t have an interloper following us there, can we? They’ll just sink us or nick everything as soon as we bring it aboard. We find precisely nothing player-sized among the barrels of bananas and cannon balls. Not a peep from our guest.

Time passes. We agree that having made it this far, we might as well go to the vault. Maybe he was under the ship and swam off.

We reach the vault, open its heavy stone doors, salivate copiously at the gold piled inside, and begin the giddy task of getting it all out before the timer runs out. I’ve already mentally spent a lot of it on new jackets and tattoos back on dry land. I can’t wait. We’ve basically forgotten about our smug-voiced interloper and while one of us mans the wheel and navigates back to port, the rest pull out our instruments and jump around on deck in time with the can-can.

“Hello guys. Remember me?”

A few seconds later one of us is downed. “What happened?” I ask, but am met only by confusion and panic. We’re being overrun in a matter of seconds. There’s an explosion onboard. I’m downed. I can see the enemy ship, the one that had been stalking us about three hours ago, pulling into view just before I go to that damnable ferry of souls.

Ordinarily we might give up at this point, cut our losses and spawn another ship. But the treasure. All the treasure, piled high on our now slightly-on-fire, slightly-sinking, mostly-invaded ship. We respawn back in and continue the fight.

And we think we’ve repelled them, too. The only one of them visible on the deck is run through by our cutlasses, we plug the gap down below and bail out the water. She’s held together with tacks and boards, but she’s still seaworthy, so we get her moving towards the nearest friendly island, sharpish.

And then, just metres away from dock, the enemy crew (that have in fact been on board this entire time) kill us again and very efficiently sell all our treasure while we’re still within eyeshot. I can literally see one of them running a chest to a vendor from the shore where I’m swimming, furiously.

Everybody else in my crew leaves but me. They’re understandably broken, muttering things like ‘well if they’re just gonna do that then…’ and trailing off. I just stand by the ship, not sure what I want to do next or how I’m going to turn this Sunday evening around after such an ordeal.

It’s at that point my tormentors invite me aboard, assuring me they won’t hurt me. I’ve got nothing to lose now, so I do.

The next 10 minutes are a revelation. The enemy crew, a group of now-friendly and encouraging French players, explain to me exactly what they did, and how they pulled it off. One of them had launched themselves via cannon and boarded us at around the time we first saw their vessel. While we were obliviously chatting, he stayed hidden aboard and guided his friends in our wake, just out of view. They kept this up for two hours.

While we were getting the treasure out of the vault, all but one of them hid onboard our galleon. They showed me all the places they hid, and the emotes they used to do it. One disguised as a barrel, another used the deck hide emote in a specific place that’s basically undetectable even if you’re looking right at it.

At the right moment, they’d sprang into action and felled us, using our respawn time to get the treasure off the ship and sell it for themselves.

Now I understand what had happened, I feel begrudging respect. The hide and sneak emotes bundle that they – and many other pirates – use is a bit cheaty, but this wasn’t a matter of throwing money at the game until it let you win. They used co-ordinated teamwork and skill for three hours just to get our loot – it would have been way simpler to just do the quest themselves. But these were pirates. It was what they did.

Sea of Thieves is like that. Totally uncaring and unfair, but often filled with hilarity, and even a bit of backhanded kindness at times. You can’t set sail on the Sea of Thieves and expect not to get robbed, but it is unexpected for those eponymous thieves to arm you with the knowledge to become a proper buccaneer yourself.

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