The Caribbean has a long-standing history of pirates, with buccaneers robbing merchant ships, hiding their treasure and having a tropical oasis to retreat to when not at sea. The Cayman Islands was one of these rumoured hideaways. Leaders in Cayman’s government saw an opportunity to turn this part of our history into a business opportunity, and now, 40 years later, the business of pirates is bigger and better than ever.
How it Started
In 1977, Executive Council member for tourism, the Hon. James M. Bodden, sought to increase tourism during one of Cayman’s slower months by creating a Pirates Week festival. “The Gasparilla Pirate Festival held in Tampa, Florida, was Mr. Bodden’s main inspiration for our festival,” says Melanie McField, executive director of Pirates Week festival. The idea for Pirates Week was simple: For one week, Cayman would host parties and cultural activities with the underlying theme of a pirate takeover. The event has become so popular that thousands of tourists and locals participate every year.
Traditionally, Pirates Week starts with a dramatic pirate invasion. Pirates sail into George Town’s Hog Sty Bay on a pirate ship and “capture” the Governor, officially kicking off the festival. “This feature is one of the most exciting parts of Pirates Week,” says McField. “The dramatics, sound and visual effects provide a memorable experience for all ages.” Shortly after, a street dance commences, delicious local food is offered and a fireworks display takes over the skies. For the rest of the week there are a variety of events such as Heritage Days, boat races, runs and sea swims. At the end of the week, the pirates “return” the Governor as a thank you for Cayman’s welcoming hospitality. The festival culminates in another street dance party and an exciting fireworks display.
Evolution of the Festival
Over the years, the quantity and quality of pirate costumes has improved, as most festival goers now take part by dressing up and embracing a pirate lifestyle for the week. But it hasn’t always been that easy. “The festival has experienced its share of growing pains over the years,” says Carla Reid, chairperson of the Tourism Attraction Board. “However, despite this it has continued to evolve. The fireworks, parade and street dances are still amongst the biggest crowd pleasers, but the events leading up to the festival like the Mud Run are also becoming more popular.” The evolution of the festival and introduction of new activities are what have kept the festival relevant, allowing it to continue to generate income for the Cayman Islands.
“The festival has grown in size and has become more structured over the years,” says Darvin Ebanks, who has taken part in the festival since its inception in 1977. Ebanks has become one of the unofficial faces of Pirates Week, as his pirate character, Captain Black Terrance, has always been easily identifiable in the crowd and in Pirates Week photos throughout the years.
Because Pirates Week was originally created with the intention of being an economic booster, it’s important for festival organisers to continue to create a fun, family-friendly environment where people want to come and visit whilst also learning about Cayman’s heritage and culture. This balance is achieved through the district Heritage Days. During the festival, each district — West Bay, George Town, Bodden Town, North Side and East End — is given the opportunity to showcase their uniqueness during their designated day. During Heritage Days, the public gets to enjoy traditional crafts and foods and listen to stories from each part of the Island.
40 Years of Pirating
As the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, organisers have shortened it from 10 days to five in an effort to keep the festival fresh. “The private sector has long voiced the need to condense the festival into one weekend, making it more manageable and profitable for local businesses,” explains Patrick Thompson, director of the Tourism Attraction Board.
A five-day festival is also much easier for airlines and hotels to advertise and to create vacation packages. “One of the main reasons for this decision was to make the event more marketable to overseas visitors and to target a new area of festival tourism, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst new-age travellers,” Thompson continues.
The biggest change that was made in order to condense the festival down to five days was taking all of the individual Heritage Days and combining them into one single day. This year, for the first time ever, all districts will come to one central location to show off their culture. “It is very difficult for visitors and residents alike to get to all the district days,” says Reid. “People often chose one or two to visit. Combining the Heritage Days will give visitors and residents the opportunity to walk from West Bay to East End sampling food, seeing crafts, displays and produce from each district.”
This year’s edition of the Pirates Week festival promises to be more exciting and action packed than ever before. “This year will mark the commencement of a new era for the festival,” says Thompson. “I anticipate that a greater benefit will be derived by all stakeholders and that the festival will deliver quality food, quality entertainment, quality fun and the unique Caymankind experience.” So, grab a costume and a bottle of rum and get ready to re-live your childhood fantasies of sword fights, pirate ships and Blackbeard!
Cayman Airways is the official airline of Pirates Week. Joining us for the 40th anniversary of Pirates Week this year? In addition to giving you two free checked bags at 55 pounds each — perfect to carry all your plunder back home — and all the leg room
you need to feel like a true captain of the skies, you can toast to a week of revelry with free rum punch on board every international jet flight to and from the Cayman Islands.