Long John Silver.
The Jolly Roger.
Parrots and golden hoop earrings.
These are the words that come to mind when someone says "Pirate." Apparently, I'm living under a rock, because "Jack Sparrow" didn't make my list. And it turns out there's a big divide --à la the Jets and the Sharks or the Bloods and the Crips -- in the pirate world. This article, complete with slideshow, explains it all.
Can I Get an Arrgh?
By MICHAEL BRICK
Published: October 24, 2008
THE pretend pirates came at dusk. October storms had buffeted the Georgia Lowcountry, and on the second Friday of the month, a rainbow ascended the Savannah skies.
For all their claims of high-seas escapades, these pirates arrived mostly by land.
In trucks and on motorcycles they came: old and young, black and white, entire families with their children done up in period garb, all following Highway 80 until the willows gave way to palm fronds before the beachfront appeared.
“Arrgh,” one of them cried.
“Arrgh,” sounded the reply, turning infectious like a crowd doing the wave on a boring ballpark afternoon, a guttural chorus of gentle self-mockery rising above the crash of the Atlantic.
Long a sideshow at Renaissance fairs, craft festivals and historical conventions, pirate enthusiasts have become the darlings of seaside towns competing for tourism dollars.
Like Civil War re-enactors, many of these latter-day pirates pursue historical authenticity — down to their home-sewn underwear, pistol ribands and molded tricorn hats. Some have even hired blacksmiths to reproduce halberd axes from photographs. They can discuss their exploits without breaking character.
No Quarter Given, a journal of all things pirate, has counted nearly 130 re-enactment groups nationwide, compared with 9 in 1993, according to its publisher, Christine Lampe.
But there is trouble in the world of the pretend pirates. Just as deadly divisions developed amid pirate cliques deep in filthy, swaying wooden hulls centuries ago, so too are sides taking shape today, though perhaps less violently.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies by Disney starring Johnny Depp not only fostered affection for long-dead seaborne robbers — a favor that does not seem to extend to latter-day counterparts such as the Somali hijackers who recently captured a weapons freighter — but they also gave birth to a new wave of pirate re-enactors. (The movies have collectively grossed more than $1 billion at the box office since 2003.)
Longtime pirate enthusiasts, the 17th-century historical re-enactors who take their hobby seriously, find themselves sharing festival grounds with legions of would-be Captain Jack Sparrows dressed, more or less, in accordance with the big-screen version.
Are they pretend pretend pirates? Traditionalists tend to view this new family-friendly theme thing with a sort of dismissive acceptance.
At the Ojai Pirate Faire in California last month, a crew of pirate history zealots disarmed an unwitting Jack Sparrow, put him in a stockade and demanded a ransom of two harlots (a blonde and a redhead), Ms. Lampe said.
“I know there’s some people who are tired of seeing so many Jack Sparrows out there,” said Ms. Lampe, a retired schoolteacher who prefers to be called Jamaica Rose. (She says Lampe is her “civilian name.”)
Hollywood provided the spark, but some new converts spoke of a deeper restlessness. As Halloween approaches with distant wars unending, the country growing isolated and credit hard to come by, some described feeling as if they were born at the wrong time.
“It’s the idea of being something you’re not, something you can’t be,” said D’Andrea Seabrook, 19, an art student who attended a pirate festival on Tybee Island. “It’s this idea of being able to go out and do whatever you want and be whatever you want and throw all these morals away and not care about the law, when in reality you can’t.”
The costume industry has found no trouble tolerating the newcomers. A survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation predicted that more than 1.7 million American adults would dress as pirates for Halloween this year, beating out zombies, cowboys, devils and French maids combined. Among children, being a pirate ranked fifth. Not bad, considering that more than 1.5 million little Hannah Montanas plan to troll for sugar across this weary land.
To meet the demand, some costumers have torn up their business plans. In Tustin, Calif., the Silhouettes Clothing Company abandoned its trade in 19th-century undergarments, according to promotional materials, to focus on developing “a well-deserved international reputation for clothing the top Jack Sparrow impersonators.”
Among the sewing-machine-owning, library-card-carrying pirate history buffs, a few timbers have been shivered. But wariness of the new mainstream appeal has been tempered with some critical self-appraisal.
“Why do some of them feel like they can wear blank spandex pants and a puffy shirt and be allowed to call themselves pirates?” said John Macek, a member of the Pirate Brethren, a re-enactment group formed in the 1990s in Columbia, Md.
In an e-mail message meditating on the state of his hobby, Mr. Macek added: “Why do others bother to study pirates in minute detail to get it ‘right,’ because after all, these guys were just a bunch of criminals, murderers, etc? Why the animosity between these two groups? What would your grandfather have said about your hobby? Many of these re-enactors claim to be ‘educating the public,’ but just what gives them the notion they are knowledgeable enough?”
For tourism promoters on this wind-swept barrier island, where pirates once found haven among the Savannah River waterways, education has ranked in priority somewhere behind filling barstools. Four years ago, after finding little success with promotions, including a Labor Day Luau, Tybee Island officials announced the pirate festival on a whim.
“It’s done this time of year because business is slow,” said Paul DeVivo, a member of the tourism council, estimating that the festival had injected $2.6 million a year into the local economy. “We just lucked into it and we’re running with it.”
As the festival date approached this year, the Jolly Roger flags began to outnumber Georgia Bulldog banners along the sprawling verandas of the old wooden colonials. The Marshall Tucker Band was booked. A sports bar announced a late-night wench contest, an oyster restaurant advertised $2 grog shots and surf shops sold T-shirts with slogans such as “Surrender the Booty” and “Prepare to Be Boarded.”
Despite the stormy weather, thousands of pirate re-enactors, pirate admirers and pirate-curious onlookers arrived from Macon and Augusta, Ga., the Carolinas and beyond.
“It’s for the kids,” said Chad Carty, 33, who brought his children from Indianapolis. The oldest of the three, Ethan, 7, wore a vest, knee-length britches and an eye patch adorned with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” sticker.
“I like their swords and the guns, and I like tattoos, and they swordfight,” Ethan said. “I like the pirate ship.”
Along the festival grounds, set up in a parking lot, more elaborate costuming was on display.
Don McGowan, 52, a truck driver from Cynthiana, Ky., wore a braided goatee, printed bandanna, ruffled shirt, red sash, baldric, cutlass, parachute pants and sandals, sacrificing some authenticity for comfort as his outfit progressed from head to toe. Relaxing at a table, he offered a dramatic salute to a similarly attired passer-by.
“I’m more into the history part of it,” Mr. McGowan said, recounting childhood trips to Ocracoke Island, N.C., Blackbeard’s hideaway. “The ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ brought it all out. There were 10 or 12 people running through here with the lanterns straight out of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ ”
Indeed, for every finely considered sartorial homage, there seemed to be a child running around swinging a glow-in-the-dark sword. A group of Shriners fired cannon blasts from atop a 1963 Ford school bus refashioned as a glowing Spanish galleon. A band covered Gram Parsons. Vendors hawked jewelry, airbrushed tattoos, beads, packaged eye patches, skull rings and golden teeth (“fits like a cap, matey”). At the Acme Costume stand, a jar of eyeliner pencil was marked “Johnny Depp Eyes, $2.”
Resplendent in long black hair, a talisman of buffalo teeth, a silver ring in the shape of a serpent and a .41-caliber sidearm, Dwight Yanguas, 52, indulged numerous requests for photographs. His teeth were even rotted.
Mr. Yanguas, a vendor of handmade wooden long swords, daggers and cutlasses, stumbled into his trade in the 1990s, seeking to trade his shopping-mall maintenance job for show business.
“I would dress up as a medieval knight,” he said.
But soon, he added, “all the kids would come up to me and the first thing they would say is: ‘Are you a pirate? You look like a pirate.’ I said, ‘No, I’m supposed to be a knight.’ So I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. From there, I went total pirate theme.”
By popular acclaim, the festival prize of $100 in gold coins and gift certificates was awarded to Lindsey Lee Miller, 23, from Marietta, Ga. She credited her sultry red costume to the work of fairies plying woven wolverine fur, Brazilian peacock feathers and ivory.
One of Ms. Miller’s costumed companions, Robert Bean, 45 and known as Pirate Bob, pronounced her triumph a rebuke to the Hollywood imitators.
“I find them dull and boring,” Mr. Bean said. “Everybody can be Captain Jack. Why not strive to be something different, like Lindsey Lee here?”
As the festival neared its finale, spectators gathered along the main beach road to watch the pirates on parade. They unfolded portable chairs, crouched on curbs, leaned from balconies and let their children play. With a patrol car to lead the way, the pirates rode wooden floats towed behind sport utility vehicles. Some threw beads. A marching band pounded out a heavy rhythm. A pet-rescue group, a science fiction club and a group of bicyclists with eye patches, buccaneer caps and beer cozies passed by, all arrghing away.
Behind them a big green garbage truck flying a Jolly Roger balloon followed, its passengers dressed in lace, waving to the crowd, honking the loudest horn of all from the cabin of the good ship Waste Pro, its slogan painted to proclaim: “God Bless America.”