Mock pirates skirmish on the Delaware at Seaport Festival

Chris Simmons aka "Capt Black Dread" fires on ships as the Gazella attacks the Kalmar Nyckel in a mock pirate battle on the Delaware River on Sunday afternoon. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Chris Simmons aka "Capt Black Dread" fires on ships as the Gazella attacks the Kalmar Nyckel in a mock pirate battle on the Delaware River on Sunday afternoon. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 18, 2011

Did pirates really shout "Arrrrgh!" from the rigging?

Did they ever eat meatball sandwiches during lulls in the shooting?

And one wonders: Were they all named Chris?

Those are some of the questions that randomly emerged Sunday during a mock pirate skirmish on the Delaware River.

The fight pitted Philadelphia's tall ship, Gazela, against a weird assortment of enemies on the water, with some landlubbers thrown in - tall ships Kalmar Nyckel from Delaware and the AJ Meerwald from New Jersey; the cruiser Olympia; battleship New Jersey; Summer Wind, a Chinese junk based in Philadelphia; and even Fort Mifflin, whose shooters were on the Penn's Landing pier.

It's Pirate Week till Saturday at Independence Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing, just one part of the monthlong Philadelphia Seaport Festival, which ends Oct. 8. Sunday's onetime sail and battle was a thank-you for museum employees and their friends and families, and many embraced the fantasy.

Guests and crew on the Gazela dressed in eye patches and ragged vests, do-rags and feathered hats, and insisted, when it was over, that they had won. Truthfully, with all the booming and bravado, and with the other guns and pirates so far away, it was hard to tell.

But no matter. Gazela's 20 guests and 15-member crew reveled in the silliness. They shot extremely loud blanks from a cannon barely 15 inches long. They inhaled meatball sandwiches, strawberry pastries, and ginger ale. And they staged fights with plastic daggers and swords, yelling "Arrrrgh!" again and again, as 4-year-olds are fond of doing, too.

The miniguns were actually signal cannons, like the ones yacht clubs fire at sunset when the flag is lowered. But no such traditions prevailed Sunday.

"Nothing authentic going on here. It's just fun," acknowledged Chris Simmons, the Gazela's pirate captain and one of many Chrisses among the crew. In real life, he's a SEPTA trolley mechanic from Mayfair with a lifelong interest in history.

"I'm always more for experience than reading out of a book," he said.

There was some history in play, however.

Cubby Altobelli, an actor from Trenton, provided entertaining battle commentary for spectators at the museum in the persona of "Calico Jack" Rackam. Rackam was a real English pirate famous for designing the skull-and-crossbones flag Jolly Roger.

"I'm really getting into Jack. My costume's pretty awesome, don't you think?" Altobelli said.

The Jolly Roger was much in evidence, its familiar image printed on flags, belt buckles, hats, pocketbooks, and bandanas.

Lily Williams of South Philadelphia, the Seaport Museum's development director, was practically a walking Jolly Roger. "I didn't want to dress up, and then I realized I already had all this pirate stuff in my closet for when I want to look bad," she said.

Williams put it all together, a study in black and skulls, including a handbag she deemed "most fantastic. It gives you the rock-star edge."

A brief tour belowdecks would convince any make-believe pirate - or modern sailor, for that matter - that long ago, life at sea was definitely not for rock stars.

On the Gazela, a Portuguese fishing vessel whose records indicate it dates to 1883 or 1901, two men shared a bunk barely 51/2 feet long and 40 inches wide.

"I'm 6-2. I have to sleep sideways," said Eric Lorgus, president of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild, who has sailed on the Gazela.

Although the ships battling it out Sunday weren't ever pirate ships, Philadelphia does have a pirate history.

In 1799, according to Michael Flynn, the Seaport Museum's education director, three pirates were hanged on Windmill Island, which existed until 1891 between what are now Race and South Streets. They were executed for stealing cargo, a popular pirate pastime in Delaware Bay from 1682, when Philadelphia was founded, to about 1730, when law enforcement and the local navy finally cracked down.

Pirates would steal commodities from the ships, things like brown sugar and tobacco from the Caribbean, to sell to waterfront merchants or to barter for food, alcohol, and ammunition. (They also intercepted slave ships, offering slaves freedom if they signed on as pirates.)

"People in Philadelphia loved pirates because they brought cheap goods," Flynn said, "and for that reason, law enforcement would wink at the pirate ships and men. But people with money - like [William] Penn or the shipowners - hated them."

And so the golden age of piracy ended, to be replaced almost three centuries later - in Philadelphia, at least - with benign imitation.

Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720

or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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