By Richard Taylor
Fair weather and large crowds went hand-in-hand contributing to a successful 2017 Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree during Halloween weekend, Oct 27 to 29.
A committee of islanders expanded the memorial into a full-blown festival in 2012. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the first one took place. The damaging effects of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy canceled the first two. Another hurricane (Matthew) last year resulted in another cancellation. So this was just the fourth festival. It is sponsored by the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association (OCBA).
“It was an incredible success this year,” said Chip Stevens, an OCBA board member who coordinates the pirate players. “Every hotel room was filled and almost every (rental) house was full; the restaurants were full; the campgrounds were full. We had folks sail in from the mainland.”
The Ferry Division cooperated by running extra ferries on Saturday, which enabled a lot of day-trippers to attend.
Families in full pirate regalia were evident everywhere: strolling down Irvin Garrish Highway in the heart of the village, along Back Road and elsewhere.
Stevens was surprised at how many people donned pirate costumes and eye patches, though stressed that the event’s focus is on pirate and colonial history.
This was showcased in the living-history pirate encampment on the Berkley Manor grounds where professional crews discussed or demonstrated navigation, canon-making, life in the notorious Port Royal, Jamaica and more.
“We were slammed all day,” said John Collamore, who portrays Lt. Robert Maynard with the Colonial Seaport Foundation crew. “There were a lot more people. We got good feedback.”
One of the first demonstrations visitors saw upon entering the encampment at Berkley Manor was a whole pig roasting on a spit over a wood fire. Bread was baking in a freshly made mud oven nearby.
Brittany Slaughter and Lindy Cartwright, both of Kill Devil Hills, attending with their families, were costumed as women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
“I like all of the actors walking around,” Cartwright said as she watched her young children attempting sword fighting in The Sword Conservancy area of the encampment. “Last year we saw an arrest and execution in the street.”
She was referring to the King’s Rangers, a group of youthful militia re-enactors, who periodically during Saturday’s event performed a pike drill, then arrested a brigand for piracy (one of their members) and marched him back to the encampment for a penalty.
Zain Koroly and Lori Lecki of Chester, Va., visited the event for the first time dressed in period costume (cottons and muslins) and adorned with accessories.
“It’s adult dress-up,” Lecki explained with a laugh. “Pirates wore all of their booty.”
For two members of the canon crew out of Beaufort, Jaron Stephens and Autumn Gillespie, this was their first enactment on Ocracoke and only their second or third pirate re-enactment.
“This is a lot of fun and we will definitely be back for the big one next year,” said Stephens.
The Community Center on Friday evening was packed as folks listened to pirate-themed songs performed by the Motley Tunes and a magic show by Capt. Jim. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a very clever take off on a popular 1960s television game show To Tell the Truth, which featured three swarthy, large-bearded gentlemen who each declared “My name is Blackbeard.”
The panel, posing as the show’s celebrity regulars, Tom Poston, Orson Bean, Polly Bergen and Kitty Carlisle with a series of off-beat questions, attempted to weed out the two imposters. Author-historian Kevin Duffus, moderated and wrote the skit.
Duffus, who also is a documentary filmmaker, has written extensively on Blackbeard and was N.C. Historian of the Year in 2014. He also shared his historical knowledge with his “What Was Blackbeard Doing at Ocracoke” talk Saturday in Community Square.
The main event on Saturday was the three-ship battle between Blackbeard (portrayed by Clay Raines) and Maynard in Silver Lake.
Some islanders noted on Facebook posts that the festival, starting on the same day as the Ocracoke School Halloween Carnival Friday afternoon, took away from attendance at the carnival, which is a big PTA fundraising event.
While the jamboree program listed the carnival and was attended by some of the professional pirates, festival organizers said next year’s event will again be the last weekend in October and can better promote the carnival.
“It was good for the economy,” said Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, who echoed other business owners about the weekend, which also included Halloween parties and bands in local restaurants. “We had a good weekend.”
Carol Pahl, owner of Ocracoke Restoration, said it was one of her best Saturdays of the year for business.
Sunday morning’s memorial service for pirate and British sailors killed at sea during the 1718 Battle of Ocracoke was relocated to the Community Center due to inclement weather. A wreath of remembrance was still tossed into the sea off Springer’s Point later in the rainy afternoon.
Although exact counts are hard to estimate, Stevens thinks 3,500 to 5,000 visitors attended.
Financing for the festival comes from an Ocracoke Occupancy Tax grant, beer and merchandise sales, program ads and fees from vendors at the Brigands Bazaar on the Wahab House next to the encampment.
In 2015 the last year the festival was held, the OCBA raised about $17,000 in earned revenue to produce the event. Figures from this year’s event are as yet unavailable. Stevens said he’s still counting, and has already had 15 to 20 inquiries at his Blackbeard’s Lodge for next year’s event.
Planning, fund-raising and publicity for the event takes months by a volunteer committee composed of various islanders.
“We have to plan the encampment, coordinate the battles, the Friday night and Sunday morning events and everything else,” Stevens said. “All participants had to be lodged and fed.”
Over the years, Stevens has cultivated relationships with pirate crews and performers from among the pirate community.
“They come from all over the country,” he said. “I’ve been to several festivals over the years. The crews are very excited to come here.”
This year, he said about 90 paid participant pirates attended.
“They are like Civil War re-enactors,” he said. “Ocracoke is a very special place to have this event because it has the most pirate history of any place in the state. It’s the culmination of the life of the most famous pirate in U.S. history. Blackbeard had five ships and over 400 men.”
Pirate crew re-enactors come from all works of life.
“We had a retired banker and even news caster from Florida,” he said.
The OCBA is already working on next year’s “grand event” Jamboree — the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s demise.
“We’re looking to expand to Thursday next year due to the anniversary,” Stevens said. “We have to plan the encampment, coordinate the (Silver Lake ship) battles and plan the Friday night and Sunday morning events.”
He expects a lot of statewide exposure and publicity.
“It’s a year-round job to recruit the (pirate) crews, do the financing and make sure the bills are paid,” he added.
Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.