In which our heroes, in the guise of bawdy balladeers,
advance on Hampton, VA in time to witness the defeat
of the nefarious and sundry pirates, buy T-shirts, and
crash one helluva dock party. [May 2006]
By Jane Meneely
Our Heroes Stumble Upon Extraordinary Doings.
Call me Calico. And I didn't stumble. It was my friend Jack (aka Paul DiBlasi) who stumbled. He had, in fact, broken his leg and was now walking around in a cast. Which looked pretty silly actually, since we were all rigged out as pirates."Arghh, Matey, shouldn't that there be a peg?" guffawed one swarthy cuss wearing an eye patch and a red bandanna.
Jack growled an unkind (and unprintable) remark under his breath. Out loud he said to me, "I bet you fifty dollars I'll hear that five hundred times this weekend."
Fifty dollars? I weighed the odds. My own guess was that he would hear the remark more than five hundred times. "You're on," I said. "Okay," he said. "That's one."
We were making our way to the Grand Pirate Ball, the splashy event that signals the beginning of Hampton's annual Blackbeard Festival, which in turn celebrates the demise of Captain Blackbeard the Pirate, late of Ocracoke, N.C. This nefarious ne'er-do-well had been cornered and killed by the Royal Navy back in November of 1718, on the orders of Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, and his severed head had adorned a pike in the Hampton harbor before it was turned into a punch bowl. (So they say.) Whether or not the pirate's bloody pate served as a deterrent to impressionable young pirates of the day is anyone's guess. We do know that there's nothing like a head-on-a-pike for attracting tourists, so the town of Hampton pulls out the stops every year and hosts a wild weekend festival to remind us that here is where Blackbeard's impaled head was last seen with its hair on (the skull punch bowl wound up in Williamsburg).
So there we were. Piratical types decked out in sashes and buckles and red coats and funny hats, swarming the docks at the Downtown Hampton Public Pier. Think swords and cleavage. Lots of cleavage.
"Sightseeing are we?" I asked Jack as a particularly buxom beauty edged past. "This is going to be fun!" he said. "You have a broken leg," I reminded him. "Nothing wrong with my eyes," he pointed out. "Not yet," I said.
"Arghh, Matey, shouldn't that there be a peg?"
The Grand Pirate Ball was being held somewhere along the boardwalk of the public piers. I only say somewhere because in the throng of partying pirates we couldn't pinpoint the bar, which presumably would be at the center of everything. We had arrived late, having driven down from D.C. after work, and some of us were grumpy (not I). And it was becoming all the more desirable to find said bar and find it quickly. But we kept getting waylaid as we made our way along the dock. "Arghhhhhh matey, schoont 'at 'ere be a [hiccup] peg??" That made three.
The Blackbeard Festival
This year's festival will run from Friday to Sunday, June 2 to 4. On Friday watch for the arrival of the visiting pirate ships. An opening reception aboard the Kalmar Nyckel takes place from 5 to 6:30 p.m., followed by the Grand Pirate Ball at 7 p.m. Tickets for the ball (and costumes) are required: $35 per person, $60 per couple. (This is the only ticketed event of the weekend.) A cannon salute begins the action on Saturday at 10 a.m. Costumed actors will give demonstrations, re-enact moments in history (real and imagined) and otherwise add color and energy to the day's events, which include several "sea battles" on the waterfront.
Fireworks fill the sky at 9:30 p.m. Sunday is virtually a rerun of Saturday, but without the street party. The festival closes at 6 p.m.
For more information, contact the Hampton Visitor Center at 757-727-1102 or visit the festival website at www.blackbeard festival.com.
Cruisers Digest: Hampton, Va.
The town of Hampton is on the sheltered water of the Hampton River, known locally as Hampton Creek. Not far from the mouth of the river Sunset Creek is off to the left. There you'll find the resort-like Bluewater Yachting Center (757-723-6774) and the homier Sunset Boating Center (757-722-3325). These two facilities offer the only gas and diesel fuel on the river. Nearing Hampton, you'll see the piers of the Hampton Yacht Club (reciprocal privileges; 757-722-0711) ahead and the Virginia Air and Space Museum, the Radisson Hotel and the Hampton Downtown Public Piers (757-727-1276; $1.25/ft plus electric) just beyond. The Customs House Marina (757-868-9375) is next to the Radisson Hotel; Joy's Marina (757-868-9375) is across the river.
This is a busy and attractive destination for boaters, with several "event" weekends scheduled to attract visitors, including an in-the-water boat show, fishing tournaments, and wine and jazz festivals. Saturday night block parties are ongoing through the summer season. Make reservations if you want to guarantee a slip. Dockmaster Renie Martin at the public piers can help you with almost anything you need to know. So can just about anyone else, for that matter. Hampton hospitality goes without saying. Call the Hampton Convention and Visitor Bureau at 800-800-2202 for more information or go to the Hampton Event Makers website at www.hamptoneventmakers.com.
Pirates of all sorts and sizes (adult sizes) mingled freely, dancing to the music by Trasna, a hip Celtic band from Northern Virginia. Good local ale (St. George's Brewing Company) sloshed from plastic cups, and we were starting to get damp from the spray – and more than a little anxious to find that elusive keg. Unfortunately, we kept running into people we knew. And then we started running into people we didn't know. And finally we managed to purloin a couple of freshly filled cups and began to make merry ourselves.
Jack-the-Gimp was in no mood for dancing (he was already up to 18 "Arghh, Mateys," plus two offers to have a hand-made peg surgically installed; he told them they could install it elsewhere), so I danced with "Cappy" – that being Captain David Hiott of the Kalmar Nyckel, which lay resplendent at an outer dock, her spars glowing in the dusky sky. I danced; Cappy just stood there. He might have been watching the belly dancers.
Did I mention that this was quite a party? It actually has historical roots. And it's really not such a long story, so bear with me here. Blackbeard was by all accounts a rather fierce fellow, what with the cannon fuses smoking in his beard and his wild black curls. Some say that he wasn't after blood, just plunder, and he knew he could get it more easily by scaring people silly. Which he did routinely during his brief but infamous career, first in the Caribbean, then off the Virginia Capes and the North Carolina coast. Some say he got pretty cozy with Charles Eden, the governor of North Carolina, and cut him into a piece of the action in exchange for a quiet place to careen his ship (close to a good pub). No one can say with certainty whether Virginia's Governor Spotswood was sore about being left out of the payoff or was genuinely upset that Blackbeard kept nabbing shiploads of Virginia-bound (and taxable) merchandise. In any case, Spotswood eventually put a price on Blackbeard's head and sent a pair of British Navy sloops under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard to the Carolinas to take care of the menace once and for all. Supposedly, the night before the British engaged the pirates in battle, the latter were whooping it up on the beach near Ocracoke. Thus the Grand Pirate Ball kicks off the Blackbeard Festival in Hampton, and when the pirate's ball is officially over, the After-the-Pirate's-Ball dock party begins.
This year (as in years past, we were told, and presumably for years to come) the pleasure boats lining the pier were decked out in full array, with jazzy lights and boom boxes and plastic palm trees and boom boxes and stuffed parrots and plastic skulls and boom boxes. And it came to pass that as Trasna folded up their mike stands Jimmy Buffett began looking for his lost shaker of salt in tones that reverberated over all the harbor, and there ensued a mighty shaking of booty every which way and copious amounts of rum consumed until, we surmised, the very wee hours of the morning. We did not stay till the end. I was extremely grateful that my limping colleague and I could withdraw to the relative peace and quiet of the Radisson Hotel next door. Which is where Paul saw the Bodice Lady. She was walking into the hotel just ahead of us. A slender blonde vixen done up in a stunning corset. But alas for poor Jack, hobbled as he was, the elevator door closed on her ravishing bum before he could get there.
Jack Falls in Love.
I like to get up early. So when the dawn's early light spattered the pavement of my parking lot view (and not being hung over, like some I could name), I put on my civilian clothes and went for a walk. Festival vendors were busy setting up booths along the green at Mill Point Park, next to a huge stage. Costumed re-enactors at the Pirate Camp were already up and stirring their cook fires, though some were still snoring away in the odd nook and cranny. Someone on a faraway dock must have been touting his hangover remedy: "Works every time," I heard on the breeze.
I surveyed the harbor from the public pier. The water lay flat as steel, not so much as a breath of wind to rustle its surface. The Hampton River winds past the town and under a fixed bridge, which effectively stops the tall boating traffic. The Hampton Yacht Club and a few marinas fill in the edges, with the Radisson complex and the relatively new Virginia Air and Space Museum looming high above it all, casting a shadow over the anchorage just off the public piers. An assortment of pilings clumps together there, and today there were several sailboats moored to them and anchored nearby. I asked and asked; no one knew anything about those pilings – how long they'd been there, what they had been. "They've just always been there," was the most common response. I made a mental note never to maneuver in the dark around Hampton.
The Kalmar Nyckel, lying near the hotel, was just starting to wake up, and I gave a wave to Cappy. The ship, a replica of the boat that brought the first settlers to Delaware, would be open for visitors throughout the weekend, and its crew was already getting ready. Broadside to the outer public pier lay the Meka II, a black half-scale brigantine from Beaufort, S.C., and the schooner Serenity from Cape Charles. These two would comprise the "re-enactment fleet." The Meka II would take on the role of Blackbeard's flagship; the Serenity would play the part of a hapless merchantman. And they would have themselves a merry little battle right there in Hampton harbor, with hundreds of spectators looking on. It would be completely schmaltzy and a lot of fun.
Aboard the Meka II, Lieutenant Terry Brown was hard at work cleaning the ship's cannon. "All the boats will be firing guns," she told me. It would be quite the hullabaloo. Brown and her friend, Meka II owner Captain Horatio Sinbad, follow the pirate circuit, she said. They live aboard and offer their boat for rowdy re-enactments such as the ones planned for Hampton. No money in it, she was quick to point out, but it's fun. You'll have to catch up with Sinbad, she said. And no, I'm not making these names up, though I suspect Sinbad is not his birth name.
The pirate festival has a devoted following, and many come by boat, wedging themselves into the public docks, and decking themselves out in pirate garb and nautical bling. A happier and more generous set of partiers you'll never meet; and you'll probably never find so many different rum concoctions at one dock. "Hair of the dog?" someone asked as I passed.
Not everyone was soused – or hung over. Far from it. Aboard Yackety Yak, a 28-foot Bayliner, Mark Fenton was getting ready for his fourth festival, and he was on the lookout for dockmaster
Renie Martin. "She'll be making the rounds," he said. But it didn't really matter if she caught up with him or not. "She has my credit card on file," he told me, for all those times when he arrives too late to check in at the office. "I make this run up from Newport News a lot," he added, arriving there with one or more of his buddies from the "Knotta Yachta" Club, an informal group of twenty-odd cruisers from Deep Creek Marina. Seven of the fleet came with him to this event. "We're all in a row here," Fenton grinned. "Mostly."
Renie Martin caught up with him all right. "He's one of my regulars," she said. "They're all my regulars. Even the ones that aren't regular yet. They will be!"
Martin is cute and pert and absolutely on the ball. On a first-name basis with many of the boaters at her dock, she's one reason, her "guests" told me, that boaters are so willing to make the trek upriver to the charms of the downtown Hampton waterfront. A pleasant ride on a sheltered river to a friendly destination – what more could a boater ask?
All this early morning effervescence left me feeling strangely queasy, so I went to fetch the Gimp and find breakfast. We had to become pirates again and then tote all our music-making stuff to the stage area. (We do a bit of singing, Jack and I.) That is, I had to tote it. Poor me. At least Pirate Jack could lean his cast into the elevator to keep the door open while I slogged all our gear inside.
"Arghh, Matey, shouldn't that there be a peg?" This time it came from a little old lady who had slid into the elevator after me. She was entirely too perky and sweet. Jack gave her a malignant smile. "That's seventy-two," he said. It was 83 by my talley, but I decided not to argue. The little old lady fairly jumped out of the elevator when it opened on the next floor down. And in walked Bodice Lady.
"Shouldn't that be a peg?" she asked sweetly. And for however many floors I had to listen to Gallant Pirate Jack tell the story of how he had been parachuting behind enemy lines to rescue orphans and puppies, and no, the pain wasn't too unbearable, thank you, though sometimes a gentle kiss could take it away. . . . Fortunately the door opened and kisses and orphans had to wait while I slogged the gear out of the elevator and piled it up in the lobby.
"I think you'd look good in one of those bodices," Jack said to me. "She makes them herself. Want me to get her card?"
"No," I said.
"May I trouble you for one of your cards?" he said to her anyway.
I glared at him.
"It's not for you," he said, slipping it into his doublet and watching appreciatively as she walked away.
A Battle Ensues.
The Meka II and Serenity had already left the dock to make ready for their "encounter" when Jack and I finally emerged from the hotel. They were drifting silently up the harbor, sails listless in the scant wind. Aboard the Serenity costumed actors posed as innocent merchant sailors and passengers, terrified by the approach of the fearsome Meka II. Aboard the Meka II we could make out the burly visage of Blackbeard himself, played convincingly by a man named Ben Cherry (he does it for a living; check out his website at www.ocracoke-nc.com/blackbeard/).
Cannons roared, Blackbeard roared, women aboard the merchantman screamed. Great wisps of smoke caught in the rigging as the pirates overtook the hapless Serenity and clambered onto her deck. Those of us on shore couldn't quite hear everything they shouted at one another, but we could see the evil doings well enough, and . . . saints preserve us! The merchantmen stoutly defended their ship, thrusting at the pirates with swords and firing pistols at close range. The pirates thrusted and shot right back, but neither side appeared to be doing much damage. One smarmy pirate attempted to carry off a poor hapless wench, but another wench, not quite so hapless, crowned him with a frying pan. It was high seas comedy, done in big bold movements and absolutely delightful. Small boys dockside stared in wide-eyed wonder as the cannons roared and the steel clashed.
The pirates were eventually victorious, and word of their attack soon came to Governor Spotswood, holding court on the Buccaneer Stage at Mill Point Park. "These attacks are an outrage!" he barked, and with much fanfare and discussion and flaying of lacy sleeves, he sent Lieutenant Maynard's posse to find and destroy Blackbeard, wherever he might be. Drums rolled and off they went, muskets shouldered, red coats blazing in the sun, marching across the dusty grass and clambering aboard a waiting skiff.
The rest was history (sort of), with a lot of pageantry thrown in, as Blackbeard's story unfolded, one way or another, on the various stages throughout the festival. Meanwhile, re-enactors were constantly on call to explain their costumes, their weaponry, their place in the past, to any who asked. Visitors could watch cannons being fired and learn about the gunner's art. They could hear traditional music from any stage (including that delightful duo called Calico Jack). They could see live parrots up close. They could be dazzled into thinking that for just this one moment, the cares of the world were far far away.
"Arghh, Matey, shouldn't that there be a peg?"
"That's three hundred and eighteen," said Jack.
We had made our way by now to the Queens Way stage overlooking Hampton's cute little main drag. There's not a whole lot to beautiful downtown Hampton. In 1861 Confederate troops burned the city rather than hand it over to the Yankees. Another fire in 1884 destroyed what had been rebuilt. But within a block or so of the water, Queens Way offers an array of beaneries and gift shops, along with a custom sailmaker. This is where the Big Street Party is held on the Saturday night of the Blackbeard Festival, and the band Trasna was getting ready to play again.
"Do you suppose the Bodice Lady likes to dance?" Jack asked, wistfully looking around.
"I daresay she does," I said, "but probably not with the likes of you." I was thinking about his cast. Honestly.
"Thanks a lot," Jack growled. "Some friend you are." He made me pony up for a beer in order to smooth his ruffled feathers.
The street had been fairly quiet earlier in the day. Various traditional bands had drawn some festival-goers away from the waterfront. They lounged on the closed street and let their children toddle in time to the music. No cannon fire here. But as evening approached, beer trucks closed in and hordes of partiers descended on the street. The dancing began. Again. When the band finally packed up and went home, fireworks began to sparkle over the harbor. "Hampton has the best street parties," a reveler gasped as he hustled toward a retreating beer tap. "Every time you turn around, there's something going on."
"I think I want to live here," said Jack as I hoisted our gear and began hauling it back to the hotel. He was up to nearly 400 peg-leg comments and was quite in his element among the beer trucks, in spite of his broken leg (which was probably feeling no pain). The Bodice Lady had not shown herself, alas, but Jack didn't seem to mind a bit. Plenty of other Ladies in Bodices had appeared in her stead, and he'd gallantly fallen in love with all of them.
"I don't think they hold street parties every night," I said. "Only on special occasions."
"Hmmm," he said thoughtfully. We had variously hobbled and toted our way back to the hotel lobby and were waiting for the elevator. "By the way," he said. "Have I ever told you how absolutely fetching you look in that getup?" He flashed his most dashing smile.
"Not lately," I said.
"Perhaps now would be a good time?"
"Perhaps," I said. Over his shoulder I could see the Bodice Lady headed our way. Fortunately, the elevator door opened just then, and we were inside and moving up before Jack could say "cleavage ahead."
Jack swears he heard 487 "Arghh, Mateys" and rather than impugn his honor, I let him win the bet (privately, I totted up 513). Besides, he'd easily spent more than $50 on me, just in T-shirts and beer, so who was I to argue? Besides, we'd had an absolute blast at the Blackbeard FestivaI and look forward to more. With pirates all the rage since Johnny Depp introduced us to Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, the festival can only gain in momentum. Where else can grown people dress up in fantasy gear and act like kids again? And where else can you find so many history buffs all in one spot, ready to share their abundant knowledge of maritime history, sans admission charge? It was no picnic being a pirate back in the day, and certainly no picnic to encounter one, but if history has shown us anything, it's that pirates needed no excuse to party. Neither do today's boaters. Eh, Jack?