ON MAINE'S COAST – On an expansive lawn in Rockport, a dozen men, women and kids are fighting with long blades – cutlasses, foils and rapiers. And not just that. There is also punching and grappling and a fair amount of yelling.
Walking warily among them, I hear strange things.
"Arrgh! You punch like my decrepit old granny!"
"Don't try to mix it up, Fox. Just defend yourself."
"Wow, Sean. Nice knap!"
"React like a bull! Like a punch to the face is nothing."
"Ow. Damn, Sid. That was my last good tooth."
"Arrgh. I needs me a drink."
Not to mention the clangs of metal on metal, the moans and grunts, and the summer-sweet sound of a lawn mower off in the distance.
Welcome to pirate blade training, a month in advance of the Pirate Rendezvous in Damariscotta.
Men, women and kids (for the love of God, don't forget the kids — there are three of them out there on the lawn beating each other with staffs) train hard for the Rendezvous. With more than a thousand spectators expected to attend, they need to be sure their fights are as realistic as they can be without drawing blood.
"Shoot!" one pirate yells. He's wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He doesn't look much like a pirate, but then this is only practice. "I came in too quick. I really need to make a three count before I throw the blade."
As they train, a tall, bearded fellow walks among them, doling out advice and observing the various techniques. This is Captain Crudbeard — Tomm Tomlinson when he's not plundering. Crudbeard is one of the revered Pirates of the Dark Rose, a group of professional pirates for hire who come with their own cannons, blades and black powder weapons. Not to mention the pirate ship, a 55-foot gaff topsail with cannon on the upper deck and carronades on the lower.
Crudbeard and his wife, Bloodthirsty, (I think her real name is Barbara, but she never comes out of character long enough to tell me) know what it takes to become a pirate. They can sum it up in four syllables.
"Pirattitude," Crudbeard tells me. "Some have it. Some don't."
Pirattitude: a sort of fearless swagger that can only be expressed by that guttural word "arrgh!"
I look around. From where I stand, the big man with the goatee and bald pate seems to have pirattitude right down to his bones. He's going round and round with a bearded pirate named Doc, swinging his cutlass until it's time to move in and deliver a fist to his opponent's face. WHAP!
He looks like he's done it all before, possibly in an earlier life. He looks like he enjoys it to no end.
"I'm a newbie," he tells me. "They call me Sid Vicious, but the captain wasn't sure that it's going to stick."
I take a quick inventory. There's Crudbeard, Doc, Bloodthirsty, Fox, Felicity and now Sid Vicious. Walking among them, I feel strangely naked without a pirate name of my own. But how does one come up with such a name? What is the process?
"You've got to come up with the name on your own," Crudbeard says. "If you don't, someone else will come up with one for you. And you might not like it."
And that's how I ended up with my pirate name: Petunia.
Just real enough
When it comes to pirate re-enactors, there are several different varieties. There are the Disney pirates, for instance, and on the other end of the spectrum are those who strive for authenticity above all else.
The Pirates of the Dark Rose are somewhere in between.
"We're entertainers," Crudbeard says. "We're doing this so much to make believe we're living in the world of pirates. We do it for the kids, mostly."
Kids you say?
Aye, matey. The Pirate Rendezvous, scheduled for June 23 this year, helps the Lincoln County Family Holiday Wishes, a food and gift drive that benefits hundreds of children around the holidays. Last year, the pirates raised more than $4,000 for the cause and helped 500 kids.
"While we're having fun out there," says Greg Latimer, "we're also trying to raise that money."
Who be this limey Greg Latimer? Only the scurvy dog who fathered the Pirate Rendezvous concept five years ago.
At the time, he was back in Maine after working as an investigative reporter and police photographer in Los Angeles. He was working with the Pemaquid Oyster Festival and just looking for something new to do.
"I was looking," Latimer said, "for an event that would kind of kick off the summer season."
He hooked up with the Dark Rose pirates. Scripts were written, scenes rehearsed. The crew called themselves the Mystic Pirates and prepared to invade coastal Maine.
The write-up goes like this:
"The Mystic Pirates sail into the scenic midcoast towns of Damariscotta and Newcastle and take over the in-town area until 4 p.m., when they will fade back into history. All attendees are invited to participate in costume, but there is no requirement to do so. Beginning at 10 a.m., children will be able to enjoy a variety of games at the Pirate Bazaar and other activities throughout the in-town area. When the pirates invade at high noon, complete with a pirate ship laying down a barrage of cannon fire, children will be invited to participate in the defense of the town. Costumed re-enactors on shore will attempt to repel the attack with artillery, muskets and swords. Once the pirates have invaded and convinced the townfolk and children to seek the riches of their lost treasure, the children will be involved in a daylong drama to find the hidden plunder that will include a crew muster and pirate costume contest, and a treasure hunt that will take the children through businesses of the in-town area as they search for the Lost Treasure of the Mystic Pirates."
Says Latimer, "The kids are all dressed up and there are probably 800 of them. It's amazing to see a hundred of our pirate re-enactors in costume, but seeing that many kids out there is really something. They take it pretty seriously, too. It's the funniest thing in the world."
Kids love pirates. Plenty of adults do, too, as evidenced by the number of them who participate in this and other re-enactments. But with real-world pirates wreaking havoc off the coast of Africa and in other parts of the world, Latimer is accustomed to questions about what they do. Is it responsible to glorify pirates when there is so much violence in their world?
"There are the pirates from the Disney films," Latimer said, "and then there are real pirates. Any child can tell the difference. They know what Capt. Hook and Mr. Smee look like."
What draws people to the concept of old-world pirates, he says, is the lifestyle. Rugged individualism. A sense of adventure. Pirates answer to their own set of ethics and they are not bound by things like jobs or school or families.
"The same things can be applied to cowboys," Latimer says. "And not all cowboys were good. In fact, there were very likely a lot of psychotic cowboys running around after the Civil War."
The Pirate Rendezvous, he says, is safe and fun and entertaining for all.
"We don't have any Somali pirates," Latimer says, "or any real pirates at the Pirate Rendezvous."
Rat Gnawing 101
And with that business out of the way, it's back to the good times of ships and cannons and hidden treasure chests.
In Rockport, the pirates are still practicing. The adult pirates pause every now and then to quench their thirsts, but the kids just keep battling on the lawn. One of them throws a punch at the other. There is a sharp whap and the punchee stumbles back.
That sound? One of the kids smacked his palm against his thigh to create that fist-on-bone effect. That's called a knap, and this one was very realistic.
"This isn't Hollywood," Crudbeard said. "We have to provide our own sound effects."
There's nothing anachronistic about the kids who perform in the Rendezvous, Crudbeard tells me. There were plenty of them aboard the pirate ships back in the days of Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham. While the bigger pirates were doing battle, the kids would run below to fetch cartridges or whatever else the buccaneers needed to defend the ship.
"This would be in the middle of battle," Crudbeard said, with a faraway look that makes me think he is seeing this action on the high seas of his imagination. "People were getting blown apart. Blood splattering everywhere. Arms and legs all over the place, and these kids would be right in the middle of it."
Crudbeard comes out of the daydream and gives me another piece of advice I will cherish forever.
"You can't gnaw on a rat," he said, "until they're nice and tender. You also want to wash them in sea water."
While I let that life-changing advice sink in, Crudbeard is watching his crew train with their blades and their fists. He's got that faraway look again. Within a month, the invasion will commence and everybody – kids and parents alike – are going to love it.
"Pirates are very big right now," he says. "We call it surfing the wave. We're going to ride that horse until it throws us off."
Who doesn't like a mixed-metaphor, but I get the point. The popularity of pirates is at a peak. You've got to strike while the cutlass is hot.
Crudbeard is still smiling.
"I can't believe," he says, "that somebody is paying us to have this much fun."