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By Connie Leinbach
When Laura Noel heard about the flood devastation on Ocracoke and that Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree was canceled, she and others in the pirate community came to Ocracoke on their own to lend a hand.
Noel, who is a master gunner, is part of the Colonial Seaport Foundation, a nonprofit in Deltaville, Va., interested in preserving colonial (17th- and 18th-century) maritime heritage through historically accurate living history demonstrations.
She and several other living history crews were scheduled to participate in Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree Oct. 28 to 30.
But when Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 9 brought a tide surge of 4 feet seven inches, the first floor of Blackbeard’s Lodge—pirate central–received this wave of water.
Since this lodge houses the majority of the pirate reenactors for the event, and with the uncertainty as to how the rest of eastern North Carolina and eastern Virginia fared (which is the area where most of the fest-goers and pirates live) from the resulting river floods, festival organizers decided to cancel the event.
The island reeled and almost every home and business had some kind of water damage. This was evident in the days following the storm as islanders began placing water-damaged items along the roads.
About 70 pirate reenactors were scheduled to participate in the festival, and Noel and 14 other piratical living history reenactors descended on the island on their own Thursday to help Chip and Helena Stevens, Blackbeard’s Lodge owners, haul out damaged furniture and rebuild what they could—railings, walkways and picnic tables.
“We wanted to do what we could to help our friends,” said Jo Cannon of Beaufort, who with her husband Carl compose the Cannon Crew. “That’s why we’re here.”
Carl said he just didn’t like the idea of sitting at home doing nothing while the Stevens’s had so much to deal with.
“Chip didn’t ask us to come,” said Noel, who is known as “Madame Grace” in the pirate community. “We told him we were coming.”
Along with island businesses, the pirates were sorry that the festival as planned would not go on, but Noel said many in their community who live in eastern N.C. would not have been able to attend.
One of those was the man who was to play Blackbeard, Clay Rains, who lives in Kinston.
“His house was landlocked until a few days ago, and he got sick from the water,” Noel said. Michelle Murillo, of St. Augustine, Fla., said Matthew inundated her neighborhood, too.
Her partner, Lawrence, who is still in Florida, got sick from contact with floodwaters.
“A lot of the pirate groups got sick, too, so a lot of people still would not have been here,” she said. “We had pirate crews dealing with their own stuff.”
Noel said the crews were concerned about the soggy grounds on which the crews set up their encampment.
“We’re talking mold and mildew,” she said, “and walking in sewagy soil in thousand-dollar costumes.”
The 15-member group of pirate helpers was organized by Ben Bunn of New Bern, who is captain of the historic skipjack the Ada Mae and which, during the Jamboree, participates in the three-ship Battle of Ocracoke between Blackbeard and Lt. Maynard.
“You all have provided us with a great place to play and if we could help Chip and Helena we wanted to do that,” he said. During the event, the pirate reenactors don’t get much time to bond with each other, but helping last weekend gave them that opportunity.
“A lot of us are experienced carpenters and electricians,” he said. “It was amazing how meaningful this experience was.”
J.P. Jordaans of Mechanicsville, Va., brought six of his “militia” crew, The King’s Rangers. He helms the Sea Scout Ship 530, a group under the Boy Scouts of America who learn maritime skills, and the Rangers play the part of the Royal Navy, who are the “pirate hunters” during the Jamboree.
“Part of scouting is being helpful and we thought it was the right thing to come down and help,” Jordaans said. “The bonds of friendship were built last weekend.”
Taking a break from hammering and lifting, Noel recalled that during the Blackbeard festival in 2012 near the town of Hampton Va., a tornado struck their pirate encampment.
“But we were already there,” she said.
Hundreds of people came out of the woodwork and asked how they could help, she said.
That area has immediate resources at the ready. Shards of glass were all over the place; a nearby roof was torn off; someone brought a load of sand to fill in the encampment where the tornado had hit; the Red Cross, church groups and others showed up with food and first aid and to help repair what they could so that the show could go on albeit late and modified, she said.
“Here, you’re on an island,” she said. “You guys are remote.”
The effects from Hurricane Matthew continued to unfold after the storm passed.
“We didn’t know how many rental houses were affected by the storm, or how the ferry channels or roads were going to be,” Chip Stevens noted.
“Route 168 near the Dismal Swamp just opened up a week ago,” Noel said.
In the days following the decision to cancel the event, Sean Death, owner of the Ocracoke Bar and Grille (O Bar), on his own hired the Motley Tones to come to the island and play their Friday and Saturday night gigs of sea faring and bawdy songs.
After the day’s work helping at the Lodge, the pirate reenactors donned their authentic period costumes and attended both nights.
Concurrently, other members of the community rallied to have some events around the island both days, in local businesses and in Community Square. Saturday night was Halloween costume party nights at Howard’s Pub and Gaffer’s Sports Bar.
Molly Brooks and Sean Shean of Aspen, Colo., who were doing an Outer Banks tour, ventured to the island on Saturday specifically to attend the festival but were not disappointed to find pirate events only at the O Bar and a smaller version Sunday morning of the traditional memorial service for Blackbeard’s battle at Springer’s Point.
“We had a great time,” Sean said Sunday morning after the service. “We got to meet the people on center stage up close and personal. I don’t think we would’ve gotten to do that in the large encampment.”
Since the pirates were already here, they wanted to do the service, Noel said.
“We wanted to make sure Hurricane Matthew didn’t get away with everything,” she said. “We were out eating and drinking. We wanted to try to go on and give back to the community.”
Indeed, if one were keeping score, it would be Pirates 3, Hurricanes 3. The first two attempts at the Pirates Jamboree were canceled due to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Then there three consecutive events, though one, two years ago, had a forecast that was touch and go. Matthew has now made it a tie.
Living-history reenactors helping out last weekend were as follows:
Carolina Coastal Classrooms’ Ada Mae Crew – Benn Bunn and Mark Barnthouse;
Colonial Seaport Foundation – Laura Noel, John Collamore, Jeff Noel and Leanne Sheppard;
Sea Scout Ship 530 “The King’s Rangers” – J.P. Jordaans, James Byers, Josh Byers, Kyle Gurney and James Persinger;
Presenting the Past – Michelle Murillo;
The Cannon Crew – Jo Cannon, Carl Cannon, Dallas Williams