While most of us consider suits, slacks, and sensible shoes appropriate work attire, Kathy Gilbert, or Black Kat as many know her, and her crew think nothing of strapping up a leather bustier, boots, and a feather cap before heading into the office. Kathy is part of a vast network of historical pirate re-enactors headed to Tybee for the annual TYBEE ISLAND PIRATE FEST. Spanning from Long Island to Key West, these dedicated performers come together to bring the history of piracy to life.
It is no secret that Savannah and Tybee have a rich swashbuckling history. Each Columbus Day weekend, Tybee Island celebrates pirates, past and present, with the annual Tybee Island Pirate Fest. This year, several crews are packing their gear and heading our way to bring a little history to the festival.
It takes much more than a costume to join a crew. According to Gilbert, everyone in her camp is passionate about piracy and is committed completely to their characters. “Each and every one of them has a different reason why they hold it near and dear to their hearts,” she says. Each performer spends a great amount of time developing their characters, researching, and learning the lingo. A quick internet search provides a wealth of resources for those seeking their own pirate persona. PirateKing.com offers “tools for the re-enactor” that includes character analysis, costuming guidelines, sumptuary laws, weaponry guidelines, historical terminology, and the list goes on. To the casual pirate enthusiast this list may seem overwhelming, but to our visiting pirates know these details inside and out.
Festival favorites, THE BRIGANDS, bring this attention to detail to their lively sea shanties. The band carefully selects music that survives from the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1750s). The band’s use of fiddle, mandolin, concertina, guitars, and percussion create a sound uniquely pirate. The Brigands describe their music as, “the music heard dockside, in drinking establishments frequented by sailors, pirates, freebooters, and smugglers alike, it was not the music heard in the King’s court nor in the concerts halls of the day.” While the group is committed to history, they add their own spin on modern piracy with the occasional original piece and possibly a “Muppet Treasure Island” song or two.
Down the beach from the bawdy tunes of The Brigands, another crew will set up camp. Here, the PIRATES OF THE TREASURE COAST host a faithful representation of pirate life ashore. “Commodore Cutter’s Careening Camp depicts how pirates would live ashore when their ship was in need of repair,” Gilbert says.
Under the shade of several replica tents, the crew sets out their treasures. The crew’s passion for their subject is apparent. They welcome questions and offer demonstrations and talks about pirate life. The encampment treats visitors to a unique historical experience. The crew offers lessons in nautical knot tying, interactive games, and a close look at unique weapons such as the blunderbuss, cannons, and swords.
Although historic weaponry is a highlight of the encampment, Gilbert cautions against categorizing all pirates as depraved. “A lot of people see pirates as a really ruthless group. That is somewhat of a misconception. Many pirates started into piracy to get away from things in their lives. In fact, pirates were the first to establish a code of conduct and had their own healthcare system,” she says. We rarely see this softer side of piracy in popular depictions of pirate life. Does this mean most pirates were more Mr. Smee than Captain Hook? Perhaps not, but it does illustrate the complex history of our favorite sea wary bad guys.
These friendly pirates also crew Blackbeard’s Pirate Ship, a fully rigged replica of the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Similar to the encampment, the crew has outfitted the ship with full, historical features including smoking cannons, square-rigged sails, and a crew of professional performers. As it turns out, Blackbeard’s crew is looking for a few more to join the ranks. Rookie pirates are welcome to sign the ships articles to become honorary members of the crew.
From costumes to music and weaponry to actual ships, these historical re-enactors are dedicated to providing a detailed glimpse at the life of the most infamous seafarers. In other words, these pirates are the real deal. For an area so rich in history, it is only fitting that Tybee Island Pirate Fest bring some pirate history to its annual festival. Gilbert says her pirates love coming to Tybee and coming from a real-life pirate, that is quite the compliment.
The Brigands, Commodore Cutter’s Careening Camp, and Blackbeard’s Pirate Ship will be at the Tybee Island Pirate Fest from Thursday, October 11th to Sunday, October 13th. Visit TYBEEPIRATEFEST.COM for more information.