Sea Change

Fells Point's Privateer Day Brings Back The Original Definition Of Pirate

April 16, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Hundreds of years ago, pirates and privateers docked their ships at Fells Point - when they weren't out looking for plunder.

Today, machine-gun-wielding Somali pirates are terrorizing trade along the African coastline.

But do these rogues deserve to be called pirates? Semi-professional pirate re-enactor Charles Waldron doesn't think so.

"I wouldn't call them pirates," he said. "They're just a bunch of hoodlum-looking characters in a little boat with automatic weapons. They're just thugs on the water."

Waldron would know. Since 2003, he has donned full pirate garb and swashbuckled his way through re-creations of sword fights and ship boardings. Saturday, he and his crew, Valhalla's Pirates, will be among hundreds of pirates and privateers celebrating Privateer Day and Pyrate Invasion in Fells Point.

Now in its fifth year, Privateer Day began as a celebration of Fells Point's 275th anniversary. Since then, the daylong celebration of Baltimore's nautical pastime has grown to include weapons demonstrations, a sea battle featuring tall ships, historical workshops and kids' activities. Last year, about 10,000 people flooded Fells Point for the event.

During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the U.S. government licensed pirates to attack enemy ships. Called privateers, these sailors would give most of the bounty they took from other vessels to the government, keeping a portion for themselves.

The recent resurgence of modern piracy could inspire more people to come check out Privateer Day, said Jason Sullivan, executive director of the Fells Point Development Corp., which organizes the celebration. Despite the seriousness of the hijackings and hostage-takings, they have raised the profile of Privateer Day.

"Pirates are on everybody's mind," Sullivan said. "We're extremely pumped."

Waldron and a dozen of Valhalla's Pirates will be in the middle of the mayhem, dressed to the nines and stirring up mischief. They plan to re-create a mutiny, among other dastardly deeds. Waldron will be decked out in a black leather vest, black britches and a cutlass with a black sheath. It's no surprise he calls himself Capt. Charles Black. In costume, Waldron said he can be quite intimidating.

"I usually hang eyeballs from my ears," he said, with a laugh.

Captain Black is armed to the teeth, too. He normally has two old-fashioned pistols pushed into his belt, a knife in his boot and a boarding ax at his side. Then there's Black's cannon, which, if loaded, could fire a cannonball the size of a shot put. (Don't worry, it's not loaded with real ammunition.)

Even with all these weapons, Waldron doesn't think Black and his crew of ne'er-do-wells could repel an attack by Somali pirates.

"Our cannons would give them a good run for their money," he said. "But we're under sail, and they're in a speedboat. That wouldn't help us at all."

In fact, the Somali pirates are giving re-enactors a bad name, Waldron said. He has gotten several e-mails in the past week from friends who are concerned for his "fallen comrades," he said. But he wouldn't call the Somalis comrades in arms. They're tarnishing the image of the pirate.

"Over the years, we've been forgiven," he said. "As long as we keep ourselves in a positive light, people continue to forgive us."

Waldron, a 52-year-old who lives in New Jersey, was fascinated with pirates in the 1970s when he studied at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. In the summer, he was a lifeguard on the Jersey Shore, and he and his friends started thinking of themselves as sea-loving pirates.

"The sea is in our blood," he said. "We considered ourselves rogues and scoundrels."

Pirate re-enacting season normally runs from April through October, Waldron said. Privateer Day is the first big event he will do this year.

Though he doesn't make much money dressing up as a pirate, Waldron has spent considerable sums to look authentic. His clothes cost $5,000, and the cannon was almost $4,000, he said. But he doesn't put a price on the joy of being a pirate, he said.

"We do it for the love of it," he said.

Though all of the pirates at Privateer Day might not share Waldron's zeal, Sullivan expects several hundred other pirates at the event. He thinks the day will set a record for attendance and keep growing for years to come.

"I want it to get to the point where it's like Honfest and it's like Artscape," Sullivan said. "People know it's coming, and they better watch out."

if you go

Privateer Day and Pyrate Invasion runs 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday in Fells Point. Call 410-675-8900 or go to fellspointdevelopment.com.

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