PIRATES OF HALIFAX: The story behind that swashbuckling group of pirates prowling the waterfront this summer

PIRATES OF HALIFAX: The story behind that swashbuckling group of pirates prowling the waterfront this summer

Article: Lola Augustine Brown
Photos: Aaron Fraser McKenzie

If you’re wandering along the Halifax waterfront this summer, you may be lucky enough to come face to face with our fair city’s most formidable ambassadors, the Pirates of Halifax. Fully outfitted in the most authentic of getups, the Pirates of Halifax are led by Captain Hector Barbossa, and his crew includes Captain Edward Teague, Gunner Skully, Captain Jack Sparrow and Calico Jack Rackham.

This motley crew has been contracted to prowl the boardwalk every weekend this summer. They will be happily posing for pictures, breaking into sea shanties and reciting pirate poetry to the masses. And they couldn’t be happier about it. “We are all pirates at heart,” says Sparrow. Rackham adds: “It’s the next best thing to being a rock star.”

Like superheroes, the Pirates of Halifax prefer to keep their true identities secret, though each has a “real” job. One is a seafood importer, another is an engineer, one is a long-haul trucker, one works in electronics and one owns an ATV tour company. How they came together to actually become the pirates is a pretty funny story.

Ain’t no party like a pirate pool party

When Barbossa threw a pirate-themed pool party in his Dartmouth backyard in 2007, he had no idea how popular it would be. He admits to going a little overboard (groan) with the theme, adding a 25-foot mast complete with black flag to his deck, and getting a particularly kick-ass Captain Jack Sparrow outfit together. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie had just come out, and people were hot for pirates.

“A hundred and ten people turned up dressed as pirates and wenches,” Barbossa says. “It’s amazing how people get into that whole genre. It went really well, started at one in the afternoon and went on to daybreak the next day.” He threw himself into the role, and plenty of people commented that he could probably get paid to play a pirate at events.

That year the tall ships were in, and one day Barbossa and his girlfriend decided to head over to Halifax and stroll along the waterfront in full pirate and wench garb. “We couldn’t move 10 feet without our pictures being taken. We were being invited onboard all the ships by the captains, being offered drinks, and I thought there’s something about this, it would be kind of cool to have a group of guys together,” he says. And so the idea for the Pirates of Halifax was born.

Getting the band together

Barbossa found his merry band of privateers through a series of happy accidents. “We didn’t know each other at all, and all met by happenstance. We’d be at a Halloween party or someone would introduce us, and then we’d swap numbers,” he says. “It wasn’t fully planned, but we’ve become good friends since.”

Pirates of Halifax is a business, but Barbossa had no idea when he started it just how much demand there would be for semi-professional pirates. “I said to the guys, ‘What do you think? We could get dressed up from time to time, get some work.’” Pretty soon after forming, offers for engagements started to flow steadily in. “A friend of a friend who saw some pictures from the party said, ‘We’re having this event at the World Trade Centre. If we give your friend some money, will he come over and be a pirate for a while?’ So I did that, and started doing some more, just wasn’t advertising it or anything, just word of mouth.”

When the Waterfront Development Corporation first expressed interest in hiring them nine years ago, the pirates sealed the deal by storming into a board meeting and acting like pirates. “They loved it, and immediately said, ‘We want you,’” says Barbossa.

The pirates get invited everywhere, and are considering a recent invite to a pirate festival in England. You’ll see them this year in other parts of eastern Canada, too. “Sydney, Charlottetown, Miramichi, Quebec City, Digby, Annapolis Royal, Port Hawkesbury,” says Barbossa. “Wherever the tall ships are going, we’re going to show up at every port.”

The pirates will also make appearances at Upper Clements Parks near Annapolis Royal as well, which is something they love doing because kids adore meeting them, of course, and they get a lot of joy from providing that kind of experience. Then there are the many corporate gigs they do for everyone from mom-and-pop businesses to Fortune 500 companies.

Several big conferences have contracted the pirates for next year, too. Barbossa explains that often there’s a spouse program at these conferences. “They’ll put the spouses on a bus to go to Peggys Cove or Lunenburg, and the door opens and on come the pirates. We press gang them into service, sing sea shanties. They just love it, because pirates have a license to behave badly, and everybody wants to be a bad boy or girl from time to time.”

Barbossa says that they’ve been contracted to do a lot of weddings onboard the tall ship Silva, and he has been asked by families to dress as Jack Sparrow and visit seriously sick kids in the IWK. “It is very sad but rewarding,” he says.

This year the pirates were encouraged by a couple of music industry heavyweights to record an album, which is fitting because they’re a talented bunch (and several are accomplished musicians). The Pirates of Halifax CD will be something of an immersive experience. “A concept album,” says Sparrow. Barbossa elaborates, saying that it will include pirate songs with theatrical components. Think cannon fire and sounds of the sea. “We’ll transport the listener so they’re right onboard the ship with us,” he says. 

Everyone loves a pirate

Barbossa says that the pirates provide the “wow factor.” “We show up, and when people see us together, it’s just amazing. We’re fully in character.” You’ll find the pirates hanging out every weekend by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and you are welcome to get free pictures with them.

You might have to wait a while to get that pic, though. “There can be a crowd of 100 people waiting to get a shot. When we go to take a break and walk over to the museum courtyard, it can take us half an hour to get there because every two steps someone wants a photo,” says Barbossa. “If we come over on the Dartmouth ferry to do an event in Halifax, getting over here is hard; we pretty much get mobbed. If we walk into a bar like The Lower Deck at night, there’s no getting to the bar.”

Every member of the Pirates of Halifax is happily attached, but yes, they do get hit on constantly because everyone loves a bad boy, and surely pirates are the baddest boys of all. Interestingly, Teague says that the tourists behave themselves. “It’s mostly the local girls you have to worry about.”

Captain Barbossa admits that the female attention is pretty constant. “We’ve had lots of girls come up and ask if we do stagettes and even if we strip. And I say, ‘Darlin’, if you knew how long it took me to get into this outfit, by the time I stripped it off, you’d be on your third husband.’”

All-in authenticity

When you meet the pirates, you are immediately struck by just how bloody great their costumes are — and for good reason. Each costume has cost the pirates between $3,000 and $5,000. Screen-accurate blunderbusses don’t come cheap, and the buttons alone on Teague’s costume cost $78 each. Rackham jokes that he had to take out a third mortgage to finance his screen-worn costume, which he bought in an online auction from the Starz TV show “Black Sails.” 

“It took me two-and-a-half years to do the research and get the right materials so that we would be what you call in the industry ‘screen accurate,’” says Barbossa. “Johnny Depp’s costume in Pirates of the Caribbean is very intricate. There are coins from Afghanistan and beads from Africa. There are all kinds of things going on. We not only look for screen accuracy, but we add a little of our own character.”

When the pirates list off where they got each piece in their costumes, it’s obvious that they love every part of what they do, and are 100 per cent into being the best pirates they can be. Even if they do get a few funny looks and comments from time to time.

“If you’d have told me a few years ago that I’d be wearing eyeliner, I’d have said you were crazy, but now I have a lot more respect for what ladies go through every day,” says Barbossa, who gets a lot of the pirates makeup directly from the makeup artist for the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. 

Teague confesses that he loves freaking people out by going full pirate at them when driving through Tim Hortons in full costume. “People love it. We’ve had managers ask us to come in and serve the drive-in window,” he says.

When the pirates attended the premiere for the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie a few months back, Skully went over to the arcade where two boys were playing a driving game. “I watched for a minute, then said, ‘Oy mate, that’s quite the game!’ The game sat there for five minutes while they just stared,” he laughs. Skully was recently asked why he was cross-dressing by a woman he knows, to which he replied, “I only do it on the weekends, love.”

If you see Captain Barbossa and his crew swaggering along the Halifax waterfront this summer, don’t be afraid to ask for a picture. If you’re lucky, you may even get an invite to one of the pirates’ raucous parties, because every one of them has a pirate-themed bar at home. The Pirates of Halifax are a fun bunch, and rather sweet to boot under all that eyeliner and swagger.

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