It was a muggy and sticky evening on October 22, 1973. Prominent doctors and businessmen from Fernandina Beach gathered around to discuss an organized way to help promote the festival now known as the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Some held a cold beer, others a rye, and others simply held a sweating glass of sweet tea as the meeting began with a call to order. These 29 well-known men were founding a not-for-profit corporation. The men agreed to promote goodwill throughout the community and tell others of the rich pirate history that once engulfed our Victorian, seaside community.
The next several years were spent coming up with costumes, designing a club patch of recognition, and building a parade float. The men organized shrimp boat races and jumped onto the docks during ship to shore pirate invasions held during the festival. It took about a decade for the men to realize their women were doing the majority of the work. Wives, sisters, girlfriends, and mothers were sewing costumes, arranging meetings, preparing dinners, and painting the parade bound pirate ship. They opened the club to women members in 1983. The club continued to promote the Shrimp Festival, but by this time they had added a few other events.
They would hold fundraisers, trading posts, and received donated items when a home would burn down, or an income was lost. They attended the Fernandina Beach high school football games and fired the cannon when the home team would score. They would spread the word of our fair island at other festivities such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah, Ga. Slowly, the club’s membership was dwindling as the original members matured in wisdom and age. An effort was made to entice younger members into the club.
When 1991 rolled around, the remaining Pirates approached the Junior Chamber of Commerce members (Jaycees) and requested assistance. Their numbers were too small to continue to man the float, attend parades, or entertain during the upcoming Shrimp Festival. Many of the Jaycees joined the Pirates Club, they held a membership drive, and asked neighboring Pirate groups to come to Fernandina and help pull off the Shrimp Festival. There were booths to man, contests to run, a pirate ship to decorate and an invasion to plan. Soldier re-enactors would come in full regalia toting their large cannon, from Fort Clinch to the waterfront, to defend the island from the invading Pirates. Choreography was arranged to keep their antique weapons safe during hand-to-hand combat. Sunday’s traditional Blessing of the Fleet had the Pirates designing a theme for their host shrimp boat, The Little David. To this day, the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival still requires a lot of work if you are a member of the Fernandina Pirates Club.
In 1999, the Pirates took a trip to Buckhannon, W. Va., to participate in a Strawberry Festival, marching band competition, and regionally televised parade. Most, if not all, of the parade floats were professionally made. The pirates were there proudly showing off their handcrafted pirate’s brig on a little wooden float. They painted strawberry balloons and hung shiny streamers on the float to fit the year’s theme, “Got Strawberries?” The Pirates danced in the street, waved flags and fired their black-powdered weapons. They won first place with that little wooden float. A professional float builder was so impressed by these Pirates from Florida, he offered the Pirates an incredible deal on a professionally built, used float. It had motorized, moving waves. The interior was airbrushed with curtains, and a formally decorated Captain’s quarters. The float had been commissioned to be built to promote the movie, Hook, starring Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Julia Roberts. The promotional pirate ship was to be in Canton, Ohio’s popular Football Hall of Fame’s Grand Parade in 1991. It had been sitting in a Maryland driveway for years after that parade in Ohio; it sat there in the weather and now showing her age and signs of neglect. If anyone deserved to have that float, those involved in the Strawberry Festival’s parade felt it was the Fernandina Pirates Club. Travel and towing arrangements were made and that is how the Pirates Club got their second parade float, Amelia’s Revenge.
The Pirates continue the original traditions and have added more to their charity efforts including Adopt-a-Family missions during the holidays, walking with NAMI to increase awareness for mental health issues, and participating in the Annual Relay for Life. They spend some of their Christmas at Joy to the Children, some mornings reading to the children at the Peck Center and entertain the seniors at Savannah Grand. They spend countless hours maintaining two pirate ship parade floats, ironing costumes, and gluing feathers to their trifold hats. These Pirates, they are your neighbors. They may be young with a new family, or well into retirement. They could be recent empty-nesters, or perhaps new to town. It may be a Pirate who sits in front of you at church or leads your cycle class. It may be a Pirate that cleans your teeth or cuts your grass. The members of this group take the business of being a Pirate seriously. I know one thing to be true, Pirates may have big personalities, but they have even bigger hearts.