Monday, May 22, 2017

My First Pirate Festival.

Being the story of the how an oddball group faced hardships, disorganization, and lack of funds to attend a pirate festival that helped change one girl's life. 

 It was 2008. Deep in the Midwest. I’d been watching pirate movies, drooling over Mr. Depp. And, because I’m a costume geek, I’d also been drooling over Mr. Depp’s shirts, and designing pirate coats on the side.

And then, in a simple radio ad, I learned that at thing called a pirate festival existed. Port Washington Wisconsin, three hours north of me, along the shore of lovely Lake Michigan. Yes, people on the coasts are laughing at me. But interesting things like pirate festivals come last to the heartland, and while I had been to a host of Renaissance Fairs, no pirate faire ever crossed this girl’s radar.

A pirate fan's dream

 I wanted to go. One problem. I had no money.

Like, eating ramen for weeks, knowing exactly which gas station always had the best prices, repairing holey socks kind of poor. There was no way I could even afford the gas to drive three hours north.

Well, maybe the gas.

The next time I got together with my friends, I told them about my plan. They all complained about being broke, too. None of us could afford to go alone.

My friend Sue had a van. She’d drive, taking us all. I’d pitch in, paying half of the gas. Cathy had a tent, big enough to hold us all. A nearby campground charged $8 a night. Jeff would provide dinner. Cathy would bring muffins for breakfast. Gradually, it all worked out.

We were going to a pirate festival.
Of course, everyone had to work on Friday. And then we had to organize. (Getting together a squad of artists, writers, and free spirits is probably harder than herding cats.) Then, in the days before even Mapquest, we got lost.

We finally pulled into the campground at dusk. We had thought, from the apparent size of the fest, and the nearness of the campground, that there would be other pirates. No luck. Even the campground staff knew nothing about any local Pirate Fest. In fact, the campground was deserted, even spooky. Jeff built a fire and started dinner. Sue and Cathy started putting up the tent. And then we discovered that no one had remembered to bring anything to blow up the air mattresses with.

Spirits were low already – we had been crowded into a van, lost, and the tent was not being cooperative. I felt a deep terror that someone was going to say, “Let’s go home!” and everyone else was going to agree. So I blew up two twin-sized air mattresses and one queen-sized air mattress by lung power alone.

Wearing a costume is half the fun.

We ate. We piled into the tent. Exhausted, we slept like rocks.

The morning dawned bright and hopeful. We ate muffins, made coffee over the campfire, dressed up like pirates, and headed into town.

Halfway there, Sue realized she needed batteries for her camera. Cathy’s boots were already killing her. She wanted flip flops. Jeff, who is Irish by heritage, knew he’d never make it without sunscreen. I had a bad feeling I was going to need safety pins.

We went to Walmart.
Lady Barbossa

No sooner had we walked in the front door,than were ran into other pirates. A woman in a huge hat and a long coat who introduced herself as “Lady Barbossa” and was towing a couple of adorable little goth-girl pirates. As we stood chatting (she had come in for shoe laces) a young man in a pirate hat ran up.

“We’re here! We’re in the right place! Some guy just asked me what was going on with all the pirates. He said he saw Jack Sparrow eating breakfast at McDonalds!” We’d all been a little nervous. As it turned out, the festival had advertised in three states. But nowhere within fifty miles of the fest. The locals had no idea what was going on.

Clearly, SOMETHING was happening. 

They certainly got an eyeful that day. Over a thousand people in pirate costumes showed up. Little boys wore Captain Hook costumes their parents has bought from The Disney Store. Little girls wore pink skirts and skull-and-crossbones t-shirts. Grownups were decked out in custom-make pirate finery, skull-and-crossbones biker leathers, and Jack sparrow logos. We ate lunch with a grown man who told us that he felt he couldn’t come without a costume. Unable to sew, and also unable to find an adult-sized costume, he had ordered a child size and cut open the seams so he’d fit inside.

A fife-and-drum corps marched through the square and up a grassy hill, heralding the arrival of the “Royal Governor.” Historical reenactors stood by with black-powder muskets. The pirates acted out a skit in which the “Governor’s daughter” had married a pirate in secret. After assorted shenanigans, the “Governor” announced that, until he got everything sorted out, all the pirates were pardoned. Much cheering.

For the rest of the day, I listened to pirate music, shopped pirate merchandise, tasted grog, and enjoyed the fantasy. My diverse friends all found something they loved. I felt like a pirate.

In spite of the lack of funds, in spite of the diverse personalities, we had found a place where we all belonged. As an additional blessing, Sue picked up what looked like a dollar bill blowing through the square. It was a twenty, wrapped in a ten. After a genuine effort to find the owner, we used it to fund a group lunch.

It’s still one of the great days of my life.

My advice to you is to find a pirate festival, wherever you may be, and go to it. Wear whatever you want. Enjoy the music, the atmosphere, the people.

Port Washington Pirate Festival. June 2,3,4, 2017.


  1. I had a very similar experience the first time I made it to the Stirling Renaissance Festival. That day changed my life. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I'm mighty honored for the kind words and even mightier glad you had a delightful time at Port Washington for their piratical gathering. Perhaps we shall cross paths once again in the future. ;)