Sentinel Staff Writer
July 18, 2010
When it comes to pirate awareness, the timeline is clearly divided:
Pre-PC, or post-PC.
Pirates of the Caribbean, that is.
"The explosion of popularity was exponential after that," says Donna Demko, handing out beads in her pirate garb on a sunny afternoon on Centre Street in Fernandina Beach. "And it was not just with the kids, it was with the adults, too."
Demko was a pirate when pirates weren't so cool. She's a public relations officer for the Fernandina Beach Pirates Club, a public service and social club that has been around for 35 years. She will tell you that these are fine times for pirates, thanks to Johnny Depp.
In Florida, however, the pirate connection isn't linked to a pop-culture fad. The state is steeped in buccaneer history that stretches from Key West to Tampa Bay, St. Augustine to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, almost at the Georgia line.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Fernandina Beach was a safe harbor for pirates. Its port is among the deepest on the southeast coast, once allowing pirate galleons to enter even at low tide.
French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, Captain Kidd, Jean Lafitte and Jose Gaspar have all inspired tales tied to the town. In one of the most popular legends, a buried treasure is guarded by ghosts.
Ghost tales and pirate lore are a big attraction on an hourlong excursion by the Olde Town Carriage Co. For owner and tour guide Rita Jackson, the charm of Fernandina Beach is that it's still a small town as much as a tourist stop.
"People really live here, really work here and they are still part of the same families that once lived here," she says. "They are so proud of the history."
In Florida, pirate history abounds. The Pirate Soul Museum, moving this fall to St. Augustine from its original home in Key West, showcases cutlasses, flintlocks and a pirate treasure chest, pirate dinnerware and other trinkets salvaged from the wreck of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. The Key West location closes Aug. 1; the St. Augustine museum is scheduled to open in November.
That attraction will be a nice fit in St. Augustine, where English pirate Sir Francis Drake led 2,000 of his men in a raid that leveled the city in the late 16th century.
In 1668, Jamaican-based pirate Robert Searle captured a Spanish ship and sailed into St. Augustine for a raid that inspired the Spanish to build the massive Castillo de San Marcos. The fort is still a tourist attraction.
Such adventures aren't easily confined to museums. Just as often, it's a springboard for celebration. In Key West, for instance, there's the Pirates in Paradise Festival, which marked its 10-year anniversary last year and continues with a 10-day event that starts Nov. 26.
St. Augustine hosts annual commemorations of Searles' and Drake's raids in March and June, respectively.
In Tampa, the legacy of Spanish swashbuckler Jose Gaspar is celebrated at the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, the granddaddy of all pirate parties. A Tampa tradition for 100 years, the January event revolves around the arrival in Hillsborough Bay of the Jose Gasparilla, the largest fully functioning pirate ship in the world. The invasion culminates in the surrender of the key to the city to the pirate horde.
That evening, the celebration continues with street parties downtown and in neighboring Ybor City.
And, in Fernandina Beach, there's the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in May, where pirates roam the streets.
Of course, the pirates roam the streets most every weekend anyway.
"You're liable to see pirates wandering on Centre Street anytime," says Demko, the pirate club member. "We are the goodwill ambassadors to the world."
Jim Abbott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6213.
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