Pirates of Kice Island: Encampment of freebooters relives the Spanish Main
Last weekend, Marco Island hosted visitors from far away – specifically, from the 17th century. And not just any old denizen of the 1600s. These were pirates.
And don’t bother with your jokes about “Arrrr”-rated pirate movies – this crew took their piracy seriously, even if they didn’t actually plunder any merchant ships or force anyone to walk the plank. The Scavenger, a (hypothetical) square-rigged sailing ship, lay careened in the shallows, according to the scenario, with her crew bivouacked ashore and on guard against the possibility of Spanish man-of-war vessels who might attack.
The group of historical reenactors, a dozen or so from up and down the eastern seaboard, went to great lengths to ensure that everything they wore, carried or ate was period-authentic. Their tents were made of canvas and sailcloth, not nylon, their clothes were handsewn from linen and muslin, their buckled shoes not something you would find at Payless. Even the buttons that fastened their clothes were wooden or bone.
While they probably didn’t need to fear actual attack from the curious Marco Islanders who parked their kayaks and runabouts on the beach, crew members wore pistols and cutlasses, with not a wristwatch or cell phone in sight. Tucked away in their sea chests and duffel bags, they had to have a phone or two, along with some car keys, which came in handy when, after beautiful weather from Thursday, when they arrived, through Saturday, the skies darkened and a gale blew up from the northwest, forcing the crew to abandon the beach a day ahead of schedule.
Before that, they started fires with flint and steel, just like their buccaneer forbears, and their candles were made from tallow, not wax. The crew slaughtered, plucked, and roasted live chickens they brought for the purpose, holding them in a coop made from natural twine and sticks picked up in the woods behind the Gulf beach, where their camp was tucked away. Alligator meat and duck eggs were on the menu, too, although they traded some gator for some fresh fish with some fishermen who stopped by.
No ice, no coolers, no modern beer – the crew drank their rum or ale from wooden tankards, although earlier in the day, tea was the beverage of choice.
Thanks to a tipoff and the loan of a kayak from Shipp’s Landing residents John and Susan Siegfried, an Eagle reporter paddled Caxambas Pass to Kice Island, half a mile across and 400 years into the past, to meet the mariners and get their story. Just to keep things confusing, there were actually two groups of reenactors, linking up for the encampment.
Along with the crew of the Scavenger, the captain and crew of the gunboat General Arnold had a similar, related camp at the northern tip of the island. There the deep water comes in close to shore, which was important, as they brought an actual vessel with them.
Made with oak ribs, spruce spars, and hand-clenched nails, he 23-foot-long sprit-rigged topsail sloop, hand-built from an historical pattern and sporting a brass swivel gun, an actual cannon, harkens back to the War of American Independence. Not everyone knows about the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, but that is where Benedict Arnold, a Continental general, was a hero on the revolutionaries’ side before he turned coat and joined the British.
Capt. Scott Padeni, builder and skipper of the Gen. Arnold, is passionate on the subject, and discoursed on things historical in between taking crew members out to sail on the Gulf. His craft truly looked piratical, although it was a scaled-down version of an 18th century warship.
“Arnold saved the Revolution. The British were going to split the colonies in two, and that would have been it,” said Padeni.
And by the way, the crew of the Scavenger weren’t technically pirates, said their captain, Donald Ridenbaugh. Here in the 21st century he manages a veterinary clinic, but afloat he uses the nom de mer Capt. Jack Sawford.
Actually, the Scavenger’s crew represents privateers, having been granted a letter of marque from the British sovereign, which allowed them to plunder ships, towns and property of hostile nations, which in their case meant the Spaniards. Pirates or privateers, had the actual buccaneers been taken by enemy forces, they would likely have ended their days dangling from a rope. A period-authentic, Manila hemp rope, of course.
Both crews, of the Scavenger and the Gen. Arnold, show up for events where they have spectators who can reach them without having to get to an uninhabited island. Many of them will be back at their avocation at the Pirate Festival in Fort Pierce, Florida, from Feb. 15 – 17.
IRL (in real life) the crew have modern jobs, including an electrician, a bartender, a medical technician, a charter captain and a stay at home dad. Ken Tyndall, wearing a sword and a tri-cornered hat, is a newscaster in Orlando.
Sometimes, said Ridenbaugh, wenches – females – come and camp with them, in their own period costumes and historical names, but not on this trip.
Their annual pilgrimage to Kice Island – the third year for the Scavengers – is just for them, because whatever those who are stuck in the current century think of them, they love what they do.
“Oh yeah, we’re all nuts,” said Adam Cripps, making it clear the question had come up previously. While his name seemed perfectly legitimate for an ancient mariner, as a Scavenger he goes by Solomon Cripps. “What it is, we all just share a passion for history.”