by Jane Meneely
photos by ChessiePhoto.com

Truth to tell, we'd managed to remain relatively unscathed, despite the surplus of pirates marauding up and down the streets of Rock Hall, Md., aarghing about this and aarghing about that, brandishing swords and firing cannons willy-nilly.  "Aren't they supposed to yell 'Fire in the hole!' or something before they shoot those things?" Ellie asked. She was referring to the random jolts of cannon fire emanating from the environs of the Pirate Camp, which had been established at one end of Rock Hall's Main Street. The blasts were loud and maddeningly frequent. Undoubtedly this was an authentic characteristic of cannons--and certainly the pirates at the Pirate Camp were all about authenticity. Ellie winced at the racket. She's a musician--a fiddler no less--and she has tender ears for a twenty-year-old. But I'm getting ahead of myself. . . . 

It had been a simple plan, really. I would meet my brother Henry and sister-in-law Pat at Shipwright Harbor Marina in Deale, Md., where we would board the good ship INSSA and depart for Rock Hall and the annual Pirates and Wenches Fantasy Weekend. No fuss, no bother. 

I had thought about sailing to Rock Hall, but Paul had pointed out that Petrel is a mere 27 feet, and that he required more commodious accommodations if he were expected to sleep on board. Plus, he reminded me, the lovely Edie MacKay and her ravishing daughter Ellie Cattle would be joining us for the weekend, thus rounding out the full complement of our acoustic folk group Calico Jenny, which was slated to perform at the festival on Sunday. "We've got plenty of room," Paul had told Edie and Ellie. "I can offer you all the comforts of home aboard a luxurious yacht." He was referring, not to Petrel, but to the aforementioned INSA, Henry's Gulf Star 44.

"Have you talked to Brother Henry about this?" I asked.

"Trust me," Paul said. "Henry will be delighted to share his boat with Edie and Ellie. He's a guy."

"What's in it for Pat?" I asked.

"I'll be there, too," Paul said.

Lucky Pat. 

I reflected on the advantages of asking Henry and Pat to participate in the weekend's plans. If Paul and I were to sail Petrel, he'd have to take a day off of work, the wind would invariably be on the nose (or non-existent) and it would be a long hard slog to Rock Hall from Herring Bay. And then we'd have a hot un-air-conditioned weekend, over the course of which the wind would clock around to the opposite direction and give me a miserable trip home. (I say "me" because Paul would have opted to walk home by way of Delaware, having sworn never to step foot on the boat again.) 

I gave Brother Henry a call. Fortunately, he needs little prompting to go anywhere on his boat, even with pirates in the forecast. And he did seem mildly curious about the addition of two lovely ladies to the crew. 

"We don't have to mingle with pirates, do we?" he asked, referring to himself and Pat.

"Certainly not, though you might enjoy parts of the festival," I said. 

"I doubt that," he said, using his curmudgeonly older-brother voice. 

Pat, who stands just this side of sainthood in my book, always goes with the flow. "Will Edie and Ellie be comfortable, do you think, on the fold-out sofa?" she asked. I suspect that if I had said no, she would have given up her stateroom.

"They'll be quite comfortable," I said. 

Since Paul would be at work on Friday (someone's gotta have a job in this outfit, he says), he agreed to haul our sound system to Rock Hall in the car and meet us at the marina late Friday night at about the same time Edie and Ellie would likewise be arriving from northern Virginia. I would go over on the boat.

"Which marina?" Paul asked.

That was a stumper. As it turned out, every available slip in Rock Hall had been booked since January. After a flurry of phone calls, I still hadn't managed to find us anything beyond the public pier at the end of Sharp Street. "That's okay," Paul said, "that's where the party is."  "Sounds like it might be too noisy," I said. Saint Pat was not likely to appreciate that. I picked up my phone for one last try. Many years ago, I published a little cruising magazine called BaySailor. One of my many Rock Hall patrons was Madelyn Reni, then of Gratitude Marina. Now she has a lovely spread of her own on the upper reaches of Swan Creek called Spring Cove Marina. No, they didn't take transients, she said. "But come be my guest! It'll be good to see you! And I just put in new docks, so there's plenty of room." 

Saints be praised!

So we headed out from Shipwright Harbor on Friday, in the teeth of a blistering northeast wind that shoved the waves into nasty hummocks and made poor Pat miserable. Which just goes to show that it doesn't matter if you're under sail or power, whether you're part of the faithful or a cowering infidel, the wind will always be coming from the direction in which you're headed. I was thankful Paul was at work, keeping the world safe for folk music instead of bucking toward Rock Hall with us. I was even more grateful that we weren't aboard Petrel. 

We rolled and bumped across the Bay, then found respite for a bit in the lee of Kent Island, before bumping across the mouth of the Chester River and into Swan Creek. All in all, we made good time--four hours. By the time we were maneuvering down the fairway at Spring Cove Marina, we thought we'd made it all the way to heaven: manicured lawns, a sparkling swimming pool, a tidy shower house and plenty of parking beyond. Madelyn came tooling out the dock on her golf cart to greet us and whisper the shower room combination. She was followed by a stream of marina residents: "Welcome home," some of them said. "Welcome to Spring Cove," said others. "Welcome to the rest of your life--this is the last marina you'll ever need," still others declared. We explained that we were only there for the weekend, but they all chuckled. "You'll be back," they said. From the looks of Madelyn's spread there on the creek, they were undoubtedly right. But first we had other things to think about. 

Any good pirate festival worth its salt has equal parts mayhem and music. This one was no different. The weekend commenced on Friday night with a chantey sing at Rock Hall's Bay Wolf Restaurant, conveniently located across the street from the Pirate Camp--an area set aside for pirate tents and other pirate accoutrements, such as cannons, and complete with cook fires and kegs of liquid refreshments to make everything look authentic. 

The Bay Wolf was packed tighter than a pirate queen's corset when Brother Henry, Pat and I tried to squeeze in for a bit of a gnosh. We didn't have to wait long for a table; the mob of pirates was too busy singing all 386 verses to some ballad or other and nibbling on the garnishes in their rum drinks to even think about dinner. Good for them, we thought, and soon we were diving into plates of crabcakes, soft crabs and shrimp.

Later that evening, Paul, Edie and Ellie arrived as planned, and we all managed to get a reasonably good sleep. Come morning, Ellie had to get rigged out for a day of fiddling with the Pyrates Royale (which she does when she's not fiddling with Calico Jenny).

"You look lovely," Pat said when Ellie appeared, all decked out in her ever-so-fetching pirate costume and ready to rosin her bow. Brother Henry was particularly interested in her bow--a synthetic one of the sort that's only just starting to appear in common use. He found it utterly fascinating. So did Paul.

"You've seen her bow before," I said.

"But I haven't seen it today," Paul said. 

"It's Ellie's birthday," Pat reminded us. "We should go listen to her play." 

Brother Henry manfully set aside his earlier misgivings about attending a festival that included pirates and agreed. Paul had always planned to sit in the audience--to keep Edie company, of course--and off they went.
I, on the other hand, decided to walk over to the harbor to watch the Pirate Flotilla--a rag-tag fleet of dozens of piratically decked-out dinghies. As I arrived, I could hear the lively Celtic band Inishowen in full throttle with fiddle and concertina, entertaining folks at the Harbor Shack, one of Rock Hall's waterside eateries. The flotilla, meanwhile, was gathering for its grand parade around the harbor. Pirates of all shapes, sizes, ages and club affiliations, had decked out their various tenders with all manner of finery. Cannons, real and papier mache, jutted over the gunwales as pirate banners waved in the breeze. Some dinghies had been rigged with stumpy little masts that held tiny makeshift crow's nests, while others had been covered up with elaborate poop decks and forecastles. It was a wondrous sight, I assure you. Did I mention the squirt guns?

A disembodied voice launched into directions and admonishments over the speaker system. There would be no mayhem during the boat parade, the voice said. The boats would follow in an orderly line as they circled the harbor (orderly pirates?) then line up for the race to the beach.

The waterfront erupted in cheers and hurrahs and aarghs, presumably in agreement with the ground rules of the operation (the water rules were probably different), and the boats began peeling off from the shoreline to follow the lead boat. I moved on toward Rock Hall's public beach, where the invasion would soon take place.

The festival organizers had provided little jitneys to carry folks around the festival circuit, but since everyone wanted to be in the same place and arrive at approximately the same time, these little six-seat golf carts were pretty much overwhelmed. Most people walked. But that meant we got to see the side show: piratically decorated lawns, little pirate kids selling water bottles from sidewalk stands (a bargain at 50 cents a bottle), and other nefarious doings. 

"Are you guys, um . . . participants?" I asked a trio of smarmy-looking characters dressed in purple T-shirts, who were frantically tinkering with the outboard on their inflatable. They had pulled into a tiny crack in the otherwise boat-clad shoreline and appeared to be quite distracted by something just below the waterline.

"Why yes," said their supervisor. (Three guys on a boat means one to hold the flashlight, one to do the work and one to supervise). 

"The matching T-shirts were the giveaway," I said. "Where are you from?"

"We're the Purple Pirates," he said by way of identification. "We came over from the Gunpowder River. We came last year as spectators and decided to upgrade to participants this year. It's a great party. We're tied up right there next to the public wharf."

We blathered for a while about the charms of various freshwater rivers north of Baltimore until the guy doing the work gave a grunt of success. He held up a chewed bit of dock line. "It was caught on the prop," he said sheepishly, and they sped away to join the flotilla. I hadn't even gotten their names, though I had been invited to swing by for a beer later. Ah, the life of a pirate.

As I reached the beach, snatches of Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier drifted over from the bandstand. Nearby, non-profit vendors were hawking crabcakes, pit beef and beer to those waiting for the Great Pirate Invasion. The New Christian Chapel of Love (great name) was doing a land-office business in the fish-sandwich department. I skipped the food and drink (still had that 50-cent water bottle) and waded across the golden sand to get a prime spectating spot. 

This is a lovely public beach, smack on the Bay between Rock Hall harbor and Swan Creek. Two relatively new jetties help anchor the sandy strip, which I daresay gets a good battering from the open Bay. Today a pack of wild kids scampered in and out of the waves, oblivious to the gathering menace of the Pirate Invasion from the High Seas beyond. And the pirates were gathering, all right. The horde of pirate dinghies had finished their mayhem-free parade and were now advancing to the starting line for the grand race. Onshore, a few mothers clucked and scolded, but by and large this was going to be one glorious free-for-all, and the kids were taking full advantage. I pictured utter chaos when the dinghies let loose and came tearing inside those jetties. 

Anchored well off the beach, a formidable line of non-pirate yachty vessels had angled in close to witness the spectacle of a hundred small boats scrambling toward shore. They had the best seats (readers, take note), although the jetties might have cut off their view of the onshore climax. Life is full of choices.

Suddenly a strikingly odd-looking craft broke away from the general fleet and headed for the beach. Someone had decked out a dinghy to look like a small seaplane, complete with wings, tail and moving propeller. A hatch opened and a pirate figure emerged: It was none other than Captain Graybeard himself! Who? Allow me to explain: All pirate festivals apparently must have a storyline, and Rock Hall's delightfully cheesy tale involves the founding of the town by Captain Graybeard, aka Captain Albert Kendall Hall, aka to his friends and admirers as "the Rock." ("Rock" Hall, get it? Well, you kinda have to read the story, which you can do online at www.rockhallpirates.com.) Meanwhile, no sooner had Graybeard hit dry land than a cannon boomed and the dinghy race to the shore began. Presumably everyone is chasing Graybeard, but if they want to win the race, they must first hand their race card to the Beach Wench. She was pretty eye-catching, actually, and easy to spot--high on the lifeguard's chair, waving a giant flag. The first dinghy crew to reach her would win a really spiffy trophy, well worth the fun and trouble. Meanwhile, Graybeard managed to escape the fray (maybe he ducked into the Chapel of Love), and with all the confusion and folderol that followed, I couldn't have told you who won the race if you were driving hot spikes through my feet. I will note, however, that no child succumbed to the onslaught (tough little brutes) and only one collision occurred that actually slowed anyone down: A full-length canoe had somehow managed to turn broadside to the fleet and was T-boned for its effort. Shouts of "Foul!" immediately arose from indignant throats, and a good time was had by all. Clearly. There were 60 participants I later discovered, up from 50 in 2009, which was up yet again from the 40 at the festival's start in 2008.

Leaving the excitement on the beach, I slogged back to Rock Hall's village center and discovered the rest of INSSA's crew taking in one of the stage shows, although these entertainers--the belly dancers--had actually left the stage and were mingling with the audience. One of them was getting up close and personal with Brother Henry, much to the amusement of Saint Pat. "I think he likes it," she giggled.

One thing about this particular festival: It is definitely a town-wide celebration. Every nook and cranny of Rock Hall has something piratical going on--stages, vendors, food and the loud banging of cannons. You don't have to stray far to be rightly and royally entertained. And Suzanne Einstein was there through it all. She and her husband, Captain Mark, operate Blue Crab Chesapeake Charters when they aren't engaged in this annual burst of piracy. I spotted her on the corner of Main and Sharp streets, a clipboard in hand and a pirate kerchief holding back her long blonde curls. We needed to chat about just where exactly Calico Jenny would be performing on the morrow.

"Up there," she said, pointing to a little balcony high atop the Java Rock coffee shop. I imagined squeezing all four of the Calico Jenny entourage into that space, along with the sound system. It was an intriguing thought. At the moment, the duo House of Cadarn fit nicely, and their songs rose above the swell of the street crowd. Four Calico Jennies, with instruments, would be more than a little snug. "We'll manage," I said. 

Meanwhile, the Pyrates Royale were packing up to make the trek down to the Waterman's Crab House for their last show, and that's where Edie, Ellie and Paul were headed . . . And that's where we came into this story, with Ellie wincing as the cannons from the Pirate Camp went off, and off again. Henry and Pat decided to forego all the fun and noise and go back to the boat. What the hey, I figured. I decided to mosey on down to Waterman's too. Maybe I'd run into a Purple Pirate. As it happened, the place was nicely packed with assorted buccaneers, dinghy racers and festival goers, but not a purple shirt to be seen. Oh well. 

"Hey Sailor, buy a girl a drink?" I said to Paul. (I've never had to ask him twice, dear boy.) The Pyrates Royale sang their salty songs, and we enjoyed the general ambiance of the early evening. I noted to Paul that the party was not as raucous as he had gleefully predicted it might be.

"Oh, but the night is young," he reminded me. 

"And I am old," I replied. "Let's go back to the boat."

We passed some friends of ours on the way out and invited them back to INSSA as well: Mickey and Marian Raup, with their son Hugh and assorted members of their crew: Dave Ballot and Chris Loggie. They had sailed Nepenthes, their Mason 33, from the South River and were now anchored in Swan Creek not far from the Spring Cove docks. They would go pick up their tender, they said, and putter over to join us for drinks. We agreed to have martinis at the ready.

Henry and Pat were only mildly surprised by the sudden inundation of people on their afterdeck. Immediately Saint Pat's dinner plans bloomed to include five more hungry mouths. (She has this little trick she does with a loaf of bread and a couple of fish.) But the Raup contingent had already eaten, it turned out, and they were only interested in the martinis. 

Nepenthes had had a brutal crossing of the Bay, they told us when all had gathered and the last olive had been plucked from the jar. They had left their home dock shortly after noon on Friday and had arrived in Rock Hall after darkenss had set in, soaking wet and exhausted from the hard reach north. Marian and Hugh had had other engagements that required their driving to Rock Hall, thus they had missed the over-water trip. Now the conversation turned to plans for the following morning. A bad weather front was expected to squat over Rock Hall during the night, and their sail back to the South River sounded as if it would be as nasty as the sail to Swan Creek had been, with the added luster of thunder and lightening. Marian and Hugh both sounded relieved that they had the four-wheeled option for getting home. INSSA didn't plan to move till Monday; Calico Jenny still had to perform on Sunday.

In the rain. Yuck. Pirates don't particularly like rain, and it fell pretty steadily throughout the morning. Vendors began packing up around noon. Pirate tents fell. Cannons ceased. But Calico Jenny set up its sound system, covered it over with garbage bags, and valiantly played on, though from within the dry confines of the room that led to the balcony on which we were supposed to perch. There were two or three stragglers who listened politely from beneath the sunshades provided by the Java Rock coffee shop. But they weren't umbrellas, really, and as the rain drummed the harder, even these stoic folks skadoodled. 

Sunday is the "quiet" day of the festival. The flotilla has floated, the dinghies have raced, Graybeard may or may not have been captured. Calico Jenny had expected a day of pirate families, with lots of pirates-in-training running around. Alas, the families either stayed home or spent their time perusing the rain-free shops on Rock Hall's main drag. So much for that. By the time the sun came out to dry up all the rain, we were just starting our last set, and just about no one was in sight. Except the intrepid Suzanne Einstein, who strolled along just as we finished. 

"It was a good weekend," she said, with a broad smile. "I mean, the rain didn't help, but this was our third year, and we had great weather yesterday, so all in all . . . " She beamed confidently up and down the street. "The town loves it," she added, "and I think it's really starting to catch on with folks. We'll have a great turn out next year, I'm sure."

The storekeepers had to have been happy with the rain since it drove festival-goers indoors, where all manner of pirate T-shirts and Hawaiian shirts and various and sundry Rock Hall regalia flew off the shelves. And with the departure of the Pirate Camp, the cannonade departed as well, so there was no more booming to make Ellie wince.
A little rain isn't such a bad thing, unless, of course, you're in a 33-foot sailboat, slogging west across the Bay with waves and wind against you. We thought about the Raups aboard Nepenthes as we decamped to the nice dry INSSA and settled down to warming drinks all around. It's tough to be a pirate, we decided, raising a toast to Mickey Raup and his stalwart crew. "Hip, hip, aaargh!" said Paul, knocking back whatever concoction he had in hand. Then it was three aarghs for Brother Henry and the lovely Pat. It was apparent that the toasts would go on at some length--so much to be grateful for, so many people to thank.

"Don't forget, you still have to drive home," I reminded him.

"Nonsense," Paul said. "We're taking this ship and heading for Bermuda!"

"Oh dear," said Saint Pat. "I don't think we have enough ice."

That was a deal breaker for Paul. "Maybe next year then."
Stay tuned.