Monday, June 27, 2016

The Fine Art of Wrecking

While pirates made the headlines, another form of sea-robbery was practiced for centuries, with not nearly so much attention being paid to it. This was the art of Wrecking - illegally salvaging goods from a ship that had run aground.

Certain coasts – the Florida Keys, for one, the West Coasts of Ireland and England for another, were particularly profitable for Wreckers. These were areas where prevailing winds, frequent storms, and dark coastlines caused many vessels to run aground. In poor areas, Wreckers and their spoils made the difference between a successful settlement and a ghost town.

Legally, a person who takes things from a wrecked ship must offer them to the original owner, though the owner is required to pay for them. This was established by laws going back to the Roman Empire. These laws differ by country, but are based on the concept that person who brings in the wrecked goods deserves to be compensated for his time and effort, and also for the danger he or she goes to when retrieving the lost objects.

In fact, many, many people have simply cut out the middle-man and kept the salvaged goods for themselves. While illegal, this was quite practical to do in the days before telephones or other convenient means of communication. Ships went down without being able to signal for help. A broken-up ship might never reveal its original owner.

Or, even if the owner was perfectly obvious, the Wreckers might simply keep their mouths shut, and hide the evidence by towing the remains of the ship out to sea after wrecking efforts were finished.

There were even darker tales, in which small communities, who needed the proceeds from wrecked ships, sent their more hardy members down to the shore with clubs after a storm to make sure there were no survivors of ships driven aground.

It was also rumored that “false lights” were used to actually lure ships toward a dangerous shore. With no GPS, ships relied on the stars, mathematical calculations, and often landmarks near a coast to determine position. On a dark night, these ships could be led astray.

According to legend, the Wreckers would tie a lantern around the neck of a horse or mule, then lead the animal along the hillsides above a rocky shore. Ship’s captains would see the swaying, bobbing light and mistake it for the stern lights of another ship. This gave the impression that there was plenty of open water. The captain would make no effort to keep his ship off the rocks, because he believed that he was much farther out at sea than he actually was.

And in the morning, club-wielding Wreckers would come down and finish off any sailors left alive.

Wrecking was common, and often not taken seriously, since the goods were probably covered by insurance, and would have been lost anyway. The darker legends remain unproved in a court of law. Small communities were notoriously insular and closed-mouthed. But rumors persist, and have continued to do so until modern navigation equipment made such false lights (and largely wrecking itself) obsolete. Yet stories of wreckers linger in place names, like Nag’s Head NC, which supposedly got its name from the broken down old horses (nags) that were led up and down the shore in a storm.

And what did Wreckers expect to get? Like pirates, their profits could come in any form. A ship’s strong box, containing payroll and operating funds, was a rare but welcome find. More likely to survive a wreck were goods stored in barrels – which might be anything from beer to fine china. Things that floated – furniture, glass bottles, books, clothing, food, might also make it to shore in an only slightly damaged state.

Lucky wreckers might find a large part of the ship still intact. When this happened anything might be found. Goods like flour, molasses, textiles, preserved meat would great those brave enough – or desperate enough – to go aboard an unstable, broken ship, which might be above water only because of a perilous perch on top of jagged rocks.

Wrecking communities were also famous for salvaging the wrecks themselves. Wood from ships that ran aground might repair a house, roof a tavern, or build a school for the children. Since the broken bodies of wooden ships were not worth much, there was little need to hide the origin of the wood, and the sometimes picturesque appearance of seaside villages may come from re-purposed timber.

And the good? Well, wrecking communities were often linked to smugglers, sailors who imported goods without paying the required taxes or tariffs. These kinds of associates were likely to take anything, and pay cash, no questions asked.   

Today the art of wrecking lives on in specialized communities like the Florida Keys. The nearby ocean is a playground for tourists. Often these inexperienced sailors get into danger during stormy weather, and legal wreckers lie in wait along coastlines known for trouble. Maritime law says that the salvager or rescuer of ships in peril is entitled to a reward, so modern day Wreckers make a living by towing beached tourists off the rocks.

I’ll leave you with my favorite story about Wreckers, by the late, great Stan Rogers. Listen and enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Storm at Sea

(Warning - linked videos are frightening)

Merchant ships feared pirates, and pirates did not fear much at all. But everyone during the Golden Age of Piracy feared storms at sea. Ships that sank usually took all their crews down with them, and with no public weather service to reveal how much storm was coming or how long it would last, storms of the era had not only danger but also a terrifying mystique.

The first rule in a storm says that the ship is sturdier than the crew. Today sailors protect themselves with harnesses and sophisticated gear. During the Golden Age, sailors did their best with a rope around their waists… Anything was better than nothing, and a man overboard was a man lost forever.

A fully-loaded ship was safer than an empty one. The heavy weight in the bottom of the ship prevented rolling by counteracting the force of wind on the sails. An upright ship was a ship that had a chance. If a ship of the era Broached (rolled on its side) it would be lost, probably with all hands.

The forces acting on a ship in a storm were tremendous. Running directly before the wind brought the danger that waves would break over the stern (back) of the ship, This could cause damage due to the weight of water - up to the possibility of crushing the ship’s structure.  It could also simply dump so much water aboard that the vessel would sink under the water’s weight.

Usually, the best plan of action was to sail the ship at an angle to the wind, as close as possible to directly into the oncoming waves. The prow of the ship was the sturdiest part, and so was the most likely to survived tons of water falling on it.

Even as the crew was doing this, the sails and masts needed to be protected. Very high winds could rip a sail to shreds, leaving the vessel with no forward momentum and therefore at the mercy of the sea. (Fact of the day: The sea has no mercy.)

If there was enough time, a crew might be able to put up “storm sails” These were stronger than average, and could withstand more pressure. But many ships did not carry storm sails, or did not have time to put them up, since this might take a full day.

Additionally, sails fully extended could put so much pressure on the wooden masts and yardarms that they simply snapped off. This not only caused the ship to lose power and momentum, but posed a danger to sailors working below. And if masts or yards broke while men were working on them, those men had no chance of survival.

The trick, then, was to keep the ship moving into the waves, while not placing too much strain on the sails and masts. In addition, the ship needed to keep enough speed to move up the sides and over the top of oncoming waves, and also keep its rudder in the water, so it could steer. All this without any weather reports, or any way to measure the speed of the wind or the height of the waves.

Wave height added yet another layer of danger. Waves at sea are enormous, often taller than the ship sailing into them. If a ship was between two very tall waves, those waves might cut it off from the wind, its only form of power. Momentum might carry the vessel forward strongly enough to carry it up the wave to a point high enough to catch the wind again…. Or it might not.

The first sails taken down were those at the back of the ship. Pressure on this area tended to cause the ship to slew sideways at any time, and in a storm this could be deadly. Next the lower courses were furled. The last two sails left up would be the fore (front) top sail, and a jib or headsail, the sail on the very front of the ship.

And, as all these sails were furled of adjusted, men needed to be up on the masts, perhaps a hundred feet in the air, working on rain slick wooden yardarms with heavy, water-soaked canvas.

But worse, far worse, than any of this was for the ship to strike land. “A lee shore” is was called, the sailors’ worst nightmare. With wind and water both driving the boat toward solid ground, the vessel’s bottom might be ripped out, or worse. It is likely that more pirates perished in storms than were ever killed by the Royal Navy.

Perhaps the most famous pirate death by storm was the gigantic pirate vessel Whydah Galley captained by the Prince of Pirates, Black Sam Bellamy. Sam sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America during what should have been a reasonably safe time of year. But he and his men were caught by an enormous storm. It drove the Whydah onto a sandbar. The sudden stop caused all the masts to break off at once, while the retreating wave rolled the huge ship onto its side. The following wave actually picked up the 300 ton vessel, rolled it farther, and dropped it upside down into shallow water. Of the 150 pirates aboard, only two men (Welshman Thomas Davis and 18-year-old Central American Moskito Indian John Julian) made it to shore alive.

Wreck of the Whydah by Donatoarts

So thank your lucky stars, and the National Weather Service, that storms are better tracked today. But the sea still has no mercy, and sailors still need their courage at sea.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Legend of Gasparilla

Jose Gaspar, known by the name Gasparilla, is a legendary Spanish pirate, called the last of the Buccaneers. Some say he began life as a troubled youth who kidnapped a young girl for ransom. He was captured, and given the choice between prison and joining the navy. Gaspar went to sea, where he served with distinction for several years before leading a mutiny against a tyrannical captain and fleeing to Florida.

Others claim Gaspar was a Spanish nobleman who reached a high rank in the Spanish navy and became a councilor to King Charles III. When a jilted lover brought false charges against him, he stole a ship and vowed to exact revenge on his country.

No matter who tells the tale, Gaspar fled to the virtually uninhabited west coast of Florida about 1783 and turned to piracy. Gaspar established a base on Gasparilla Island and was soon the scourge of the Gulf of Mexico, where he plundered dozens of ships and amassed a huge cache of treasure.

Legend says he put most male prisoners to death or recruited them as pirates, while he took women to nearby Captiva Island, where they would serve as his concubines, become the wives of his pirate crew, or await ransom payment from their families.

One of the most famous tales of Gasparilla involves a Spanish (or Mexican) princess named Useppa. Though captured by the pirate, she consistently rejected his advances, until he threatened to behead her if she would not submit to him. When she still refused, he killed her in a rage. Gasparilla instantly regretted the deed and took her body to a nearby island, which he named Useppa in her honor, and buried her himself.

Similarly, Sanibel Island is said to have been named by Gaspar's first mate, Roderigo Lopez, after his lover whom he had left back in Spain. Empathizing with his friend's plight, Gaspar eventually allowed Lopez to return home, and even trusted him with his personal log.

All the legends do agree that José Gaspar met his end in December 1821, the year that Spain sold the Florida Territory to the United States. He had decided to retire after almost 40 years of pirating, and he and his crew were dividing the treasure at his base on Gasparilla Island.

As the pirates were sorting the coins, a lookout spotted what seemed to be a fat British merchant ship, an opportunity too good to pass up. But When Gasparilla and his crew attacked, the intended victim lowered the Union Jack and raised an American flag. This was no merchant ship. It was the pirate hunting schooner USS Enterprise.

The original USS Enterprise

In the battle that followed, Gasparilla's ship was battered by cannon fire and in danger of sinking. Rather than surrender, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his waist and dramatically leapt from the bow, shouting "Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!"

His surviving crew, not quite so brave, were captured and hanged, but a few escaped. In most versions of the story, one of these survivors was Juan Gómez, who told the tale to later generations.
John Gómez (also known as Juan Gómez and Panther John) lived in a shack on otherwise uninhabited Panther Key near Marco Island in Southwest Florida in the late 1800s. He was well known in the area as a skilled boat pilot and fishing guide and as a teller of tall tales, mostly about his own heroic adventures.

Among other things, Gómez claimed to have been born in Portugal in 1781 (which would have made him the oldest person in the world upon his death in 1900), saw Napoleon as a youth in France, became a cabin boy on a merchant ship and jumped ship in the United States, served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars, served as a coastal pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, did some pirating in Cuba, and escaped from a Cuban prison before finally settling in the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.

John Gomez, aka Juan Gomez.jpg

We don’t know Gómez's stories well, since they were told very informally - usually on fishing trips or around a campfire - and are documented only in a few letters and obituaries written by friends when Gómez died in 1900. Accounts of his tall tales differ, and attempts to confirm the truth of surviving details have not come up with much.

Most of Gómez's versions of Gasparilla’s legend claim that Gómez himself was an important member of Gaspar's crew or even his brother-in-law. Since his death, many fantastical and conflicting claims have been made about Gómez's piratical exploits with Gaspar. These stories also relate Gómez's knowledge of several huge treasure caches supposedly hidden in the Charlotte Harbor area of Florida.

As tourism in Florida grew, local advertisers elaborated the stories into a full-fledged legend. They were not at all bothered by the fact that no actual proof of Gasparilla’s existence had ever been found. He is not documented in any contemporary accounts, his name is not mentioned in any US Navy reports, and the USS Enterprise has been proven to be somewhere else as the time of the pirate’s supposed death.

But pirates are fun! Despite a lack of proof that the pirate ever existed, a Florida club called the Mystic Krew of Gasparilla commissioned a “biography” of their hero. The book fooled a lot of people, but the Krew’s intent seems to have been mostly to promote their local parade and festival.
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival began in 1904, when Tampa businessmen staged a theatrical pirate “invasion” of their city.

Tampa now hosts Gasparilla-themed events from January to March. But the high point is still an "invasion" by José Gaspar and his crew, which takes place on the last Saturday in January.
 Members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (based on the Mardi Gras krews of New Orleans) accompanied by hundreds of private boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the José Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was built for this purpose in 1954.

The mayor of Tampa then hands over the key of the city to the pirate captain and a "victory parade" marches down Bayshore Boulevard. An average of over 300,000 people attend the event, which contributes over $20 million to the local economy.

Not bad work for a pirate that never even existed.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Port Washington Pirate Festival – The Pirates Are Back!

A review of last weekend's festival

 This past weekend was the Port Washington Pirate Festival II, which is to say the revival of an event central to pirating in the Midwest. I was there, and it was great!

Disclaimer – I was an employee of the Fest. As a storyteller and historian, I entertained crowds for tips and a small stipend. It didn’t cover costs, but the Fest is important to me. I wanted to see it succeed!

The author

And succeed it did! Events started at 5pm on Friday, and were still going when I had to leave at 2pm on Sunday. Between those times, there were happy crowds, enthusiastic performers, great food, talented vendors, and lots, lots, lots of pirates.

Friday started slowly, as these things are wont to do. One young gentleman that I talked to had expected to walk into a crowd of people dressed as pirates early on Friday. Instead, he saw only average folk, until one boy passed wearing a pirate T-shirt.  This is pretty much on track with previous events. Friday is still pretty much set-up day. A pirate shirt, or “Jack Sparrow eating breakfast at McDonalds” is about all you’re going to get early in the day.

Some people are always ready to pirate

There were a few notable gaps. Electricity was not well set up. Several bouncy-castles intended for the kids did not get inflated until Saturday, and vendors suffered through inadequate lighting in the Thieves’ Marketplace on Friday night. The Information Booth did not look organized, which was a shame, due to its central location. A small number of people wearing bright pink “VOLUNTEER” badges were dashing back and forth tirelessly.

The whole area as under stress, due in part to a huge downtown construction project (renovation of some historic buildings and building new condominiums) that was right next to Pirate Central. Weather, while balmy in temperature, also provided some rain and fog (“Welcome to Maine” as one pirate said) and a number of scary-looking thunderclouds. Port Washington tests its Tornado Siren on Saturday, so a few people were frightened by that.

Pirate hamsters in training
But all in all, it was a great event.

A variety of acts were booked. Musicians, ranging from a High School saxophone quintet, to a full-fledged Irish punk band, complete with smoke effects. The historic reenactors were back, with period music, clothing and weapons demonstrations. Black powder cannons were shot off regularly, to the delight of the crowd. My own efforts to entertain with Real Pirate History brought enthusiastic amazement and applause. And various pirate groups from all over made their contributions, either by performing skits, providing amusing commentary on the acts, or just by looking fan-damn-tastic!

I always keep an eye out for the youngest pirate at an event, and this year the winner was 6 weeks old, sound asleep, but wearing a pirate bandana in her pirate-momma’s arms. Several white-haired individuals were possibilities for my “oldest pirate” award, but all of them were moving too fast to catch and interview!

I did managed to talk to a couple of individuals in wheelchairs, and all of them gave the fest high points for accessibility. One young fest-goer was in full mermaid regalia. All in all, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time.

Food vendors were plentiful, and their ware delicious. While not exactly “period” pirate fare, goodies like lemon shake-ups, funnel cakes and corn dogs were both available and reasonably priced. Wisconsin is also home to a delicacy called Cheese Curds – chunks of fresh cheese that is battered and deep fried. Five varieties were available at this fest, and all were good. Deep fried Oreos, pulled pork, and some of the best beef brisket ever were also available. But by Friday night, I needed a salad! My craving was quickly satisfied at a local restaurant, the Rusty Anchor.

Image result for rusty anchor restaurant port washington wi
Historic Port Washington

On Saturday evening, my companion and I went sailing on the Denis Sullivan, a historic sailing craft that does educational and environmental work all over the Great Lakes. This ship, larger than others that have attended in former years, tied up on the far side of the harbor. The walk to board her was along one, and a little hard on my legs. But the view across the water, and seeing the Fest in its full glory was a grand addition to my day.

 Pirates were mock-fighting over a bottle of rum, complete with clashing stage-swords and athletic stunts. Belly dancers were shaking it down in the gazebo. Up on the hill, the reenactment militia was showing off their marching skills. Kids were learning to throw boarding-axes at sturdy wooden targets. Bouncy-castled bounced. Crowds cheered. It was a picture of activity and happiness.

All in fun, mate!

Our voyage was lively. Guests were allowed to help raise and lower the sails, and we got to enjoy the feeling of the big ship under sail-power alone. The crew were more than helpful, explaining how the ship operates, her history, and how one can book longer cruises. I entertained both crew and passengers with an explanation of pirate swords (since mine was handy.)

When we were trapped in a spooky fog-bank, the capable captain made us all feel safe. And the ship navigated perfectly, sailing right through the harbor’s mouth with no problem at all. For me, a trip on any tall ship available is a high point of any fest, and the Denis Sullivan did not disappoint.

On the Denis Sullivan

Sunday morning started late. I did one final show – Mysteries of the Pirate Chest, in which I show off items that might be found in the chest of a real 18th century pirate. The belly dancers did their thing. Then it was off to Main Street, for the Pirate Parade. Short but sweet. After that, it was lunch, a little more people-watching (always a great thing to do at a pirate fest) and then the long drive home.

All in all, this fest gets a B+. While organization could improve, this is the first fest run by the current group, and they did a good job. Next year, I’m sure, will be smoother. All the attractions were first rate. Everyone seemed to be making an effort. The Port Washington Pirate Fest is loved by many people, and all of them want this incarnation to succeed.

Last of all, the beautiful town of Port Washington is a wonderful place to spend time, with or without pirates. Its view of the Lake is perfect. The locals are friendly. And you can spend 3 days without spending a cent at a chain restaurant, hotel or store, which is my idea of a great get away.

So plan for next year, folks. First weekend in June. The Pirate Fest is Back!