Avast, ye lubbers and scalawags! Set yer spyglass toward Vallejo’s Waterfront Park. The Northern California Pirate Festival, where thousands gather for swashbuckling adventure on Fathers Day weekend, is returning right on schedule.
This is the Festival’s 12th year. It began when a group of Renaissance fair entertainers, seeing the fun “pirates” have invading those fairs, decided the Bay Area needed its own pirate event. Some of the organizers are part of the Sea Dogs Elizabethan Privateers and the Paddy West School of Seamanship from the London Docks of the Dickens Christmas Fair.
When they finally launched the inaugural festival, they were giddy at the prospect of 5,000 people attending. Instead, about three times that number showed up the first day. “It was crazy—an insane number!” Anna Benincasa-Morales recalled. She and her fellow performers looked out from the stage at the crowd that filled the park. “It was amazing.” Some people have attended every festival.
Acts and displays change through the years. After a scorching 2012 event, the organizers—who are volunteers rather than commercial producers—made the tough decision to charge admission for the first time and rent a large tent for shade. Plus, the event needed more revenue. Vendor spaces and donations weren’t bringing in enough. “We thought we’d get some sort of city sponsor support to help move things along, to ensure it would stay a free event,” Benincasa-Morales said. That never happened.
Fortunately, their audience decided the event is worth the cost. “We’re keeping the ticket price as low as we possibly can. We want it affordable to as many people as possible,” she said.
The Northern California Pirate Festival bills itself as family fun. It attracts all types, from dedicated pirate enthusiasts to movie aficionados to those who want to experience something new. One year, a California couple whose distant ancestor had been a pirate in his brief life attended dressed for the party and waved their genuine “family” pirate flag.
People come from across the United States and other countries as well as nearby locales, and there’s plenty to do. Children can fence with real foils or slide down The Kraken. At Anne Bonny’s and “Calico” Jack Rackham’s School of Piracy, they learn sailing terms, swing aboard a ship to knock down wooden opponents and design a pirate flag. Storytellers and minstrels have songs especially for the younger crowd.
Adults can watch the Dive Bar mermaids and Serpent Siren bellydancers, hear pirate rock bands Pirates Charles and O’Craven and other entertainers, see several historic pirates—and pirate hunters—and learn about authentic pirate history.
This year’s festival is reconfigured. Admission will be from the street, not the parking lot. The large tent will be replaced by other shade that won’t obstruct the waterfront breeze or isolate the stage, and the “adult” Buccaneer Bash is on hiatus this year.
A new privateer ship, the Sea Eagle, with striking stripes and skulls on its sails, will fire its guns at the B.O.O.M Pirates, who will return fire from land during the popular ship-to-shore battle.
First-timers often don’t know what to expect, Benincasa-Morales said. “They want to play, too, and get a bit more into it.” Before long, they are dressing as pirates for the day, after visiting the many vendors. That’s part of the appeal, she said. “Escapism—you don’t have to be just you.” Newcomers are welcomed by “veteran” pirates. “I’ve seen amazing, friendly interactions over the years,” she said. “People get that everybody’s welcome, and they’re going to have a good time.”
The Northern California Pirate Festival will take place from 10am to 6pm Saturday, June 16, and Sunday, June 17, at Vallejo Waterfront Park, 298 Mare Island Way, Vallejo. Adults pay $12 for a day or $20 for the weekend. And children 12 and younger get in free. Tickets are available online at norcalpiratefestival.com.