Time to walk the plank?

The country’s so-called “national festival” hobbled through its 36th year with all of the energy of a rheumatic pirate with a splintered peg leg.

The annual Cayman Islands Pirates Week has become too long, too scattered and too poorly attended. It’s a classic example of government-driven “mission creep,” half-hearted funding and unimaginative management. Perhaps it’s time for Pirates Week to walk the plank.

Don’t get us wrong. We support the idea of Cayman having a spectacular “national festival” such as Carnival in Brazil and Trinidad, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Even Cayman’s Batabano has much more energy in evidence than the “carbon-copy” Pirates Week we have been witnessing for years.

The official Pirates Week website states that the festival runs 11 days from Nov. 7-17. Factoring in weekends special to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, the festival actually sprawls across 23 days from Nov. 1-23. We are closer to a Pirates Month than we are a Pirates Week.

By comparison, Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro occupy four days; Carnival in Trinidad two days; and the main Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans take place over a long weekend.

One problem with Cayman’s festival is its lack of identity. Logically, one would assume the focus of Pirates Week to be, well, pirates. That is how the festival is marketed to visiting pirate crews, tourists and locals. Appropriately, the festival’s signature events are downtown’s Pirates Landing and Sentencing of the Pirates, which take place on consecutive Saturdays.

The rest of the month is filled with assorted activities that have little to do with pirates.

For example, the official Pirates Week schedule contains the following: three parties, six meals or happy hours, seven district heritage days, three parades, six musical events, three runs, two swimming competitions, one darts tournament, two fireworks shows, one family fun fair, three dances in downtown George Town alone, one boat race and one cardboard boat race.

No wonder we’re fatigued. And apparently we’re not the only ones. Most of our elected lawmakers and tourism officials were AWOL from the opening day festivities. (Or perhaps they didn’t bother showing up because they knew in advance that Cayman’s “pirate ship,” the Jolly Roger, which is featured prominently on the festival’s website, would be in dry dock and not available for this year’s Pirates Landing.)

Our observations are not intended to disparage the individual and cumulative investments of time and money that many people and organizations have contributed over the decades to make Pirates Week possible. In fact, we at the Caymanian Compass have been a major sponsor of the event for many years.

However, as Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter reminded us nearly a century ago, “creative destruction” is a natural ingredient of growth and the evolutionary process. The old and tired must give way to the new and the innovative. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be.

If there is truly a demand for imaginary recreations of fictional pirate exploits, increasingly irrelevant activities, and annual revisitations to Cayman’s glory days of thatch rope making and stewed plum, then who are we to object? However, the lackluster attendance and the yawning familiarity of the proceedings this year suggest that Pirates Week may have run its course.

At the very least, we would observe that major event planning, marketing and management is, like piracy, a cutthroat business. If Pirates Week is to continue as our officially sanctioned “national festival,” we need not another boatload of “offshore pirates” but an invasion of new, talented, event-planning impresarios.


  1. A few observations on this years Pirates Week.

    Pirates Landing. The noise from the bombs thrown into the water was deafening. I’m sure they cause long term hearing damage. We were watching for the first puff of smoke and immediately covered our ears.

    Surely if they were half as loud they could still be easily heard.

    The floats in the parade were just not good enough. And several did not even pretend to be floats. They were just trucks or cars with adverts on them.

    The worst was the steel drum float. The guy driving sounded his horn every second, so one could not even hear the talented musicians.

    The music at the evening parties was too loud. It does not need to be heard in Jamaica!

    The cardboard boat race was fun as always.

  2. Pirates of the Caribbean earnings;-

    Curse of the Black Pearl 635 Million Dollars
    Dead Mans Chest 1,060 Million Dollars
    At Worlds End 960 Million Dollars
    On Stranger Tides 1,043 Million Dollars

    So over 3.5 BILLION DOLLARS in a decade.

    The romance is clearly still burning brightly and Cayman would do well to grab onto Hollywoods’ coat tails and enjoy the ride and the success.

    I’ve heard a few naysayers comment along the lines that Pirates were criminals and that is not a good role model, but the political landscape of the time was much like the wild west and the lines between villain and hero was far from clear cut.

    Captain Morgan, appropriately immortalised with an eponymous Rum, was in fact Sir Henry Morgan, who received a knighthood for his services to the crown as a ‘privateer’.

    Sir Francis Drake, famous for his circumnavigation of the globe, a Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy, was also considered a pirate or privateer…

    The experience and skills gained by those privateers certainly made a major contribution to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, without them the map of europe would have ended up much different.

    So perhaps the problem is not with the romance or the image, but looking at the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ I’m wondering if that franchise isn’t also the problem?
    They have well and truly raised the bar and set a high expectation, maybe it’s time for cayman to go ‘pro’ and have a team of paid full time actors/stuntmen conducting a fully choreographed fight between e.g a squad of Royal Marines in 1750’s period uniform and a similar group of pirates, swords – pistols – muskets – fists and daggers. Sparks flying and the smell of black powder in central Georgetown.

    A daily show on cruise ship days could help to keep the tourists in Georgetown (and spending) and even be an incentive to those who would otherwise stay onboard.

    What about a nice working period replica of a signal cannon for fort george – the aforementioned marines could ceremonially fire a noon day gun as was the required custom in major ports around the world when sailors navigated by sextant and an accurate clock and skilled captain could prevent loss of a ship, crew and cargo.

    Maybe an oportunity there for an educational interlude with one of the players explaining some of the seafaring skill of sailors of the day – there’s more to ‘pirating’ than rum and eyepatches.

    Another ‘farewell’ battle could see the tourists back to their ship.

    There is little point in improving the tourist infrastructure unless the Cayman tourist ‘product’ is kept fresh and current.

    Bristol celebrated its maritime past by building a replica of John Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, it cost several million but has already recouped that back many times.

    Given the recent discovery of the wreck of blackbeards ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’ (originally La Concorde) perhaps that could be a great subject to create Caymans own replica…

    I suspect it would draw more business than the Turtle farm and be a better investment for government monies.

    The skills of those 17th century navigators played no small part in the development of the caribbean region as a whole and Cayman should embrace that part of its past with gusto, committment and pride – Where better than here – let it be Hollywood that’s the cheap facsimile, Cayman is the real deal.

  3. What a negative article. You can feel the contempt just dripping from it. Thankfully, my wife and I are not the parsimonious sort who think Pirate Week is a waste of resources. We come down yearly to meet and play with our friends from all over the world and we spend a lot of money. Pirate costume pieces, rum, things for the kids back home all equate to a much healthier Caymanian economy. And lackluster attendance? Where was the writer during the celebration that WE saw? On a rowboat to Cuba? It was wall to wall people up every street! The use of descriptions in the piece defy all logic. Here’s a word for the author to use in the future. Try leitmotif. It’s a recurrent theme throughout a literary composition associated with a particular person, idea or situation. In this case a single handed attempt to destroy something in which people take much pleasure. And that, my friends, is very sad. My Lady Wife and I are already saving for next year’s trip and we intend to dress as pirates with or without a festival and if this is deemed unsuitable, I know a few hundred people, including us, who will be going elsewhere to spend our hard-earned money.

  4. In response to the Editor’s sharp critique of our national festival in the Caymanian Compass of November 18, 2013, as Executive Director please allow me the opportunity to provide some feedback and to clarify several inaccuracies as stated in the Editor’s Letter.

    Firstly, my overall opinion of the article is that it was written from a somewhat uninformed position as it relates to the origins and purpose of Pirates Week and as such I am inclined to respond in a manner that educates to a much greater extent than it rebuts and brings clarity to a debate to a greater degree than in fuels further confusion or discord. So Mr. Editor, as it pertains to walking the plank, this is one time when the sharks in Davey Jones’ locker will smell the funk of your errors but not taste of your carcass.

    The Pirates Week concept was born from an idea to Stage an event that primarily would attract tourists to Cayman. Pirates Week was started in 1977 by the then Executive Council Member for Tourism, the Hon. James Bodden, as a vehicle to stimulate tourist arrivals during the off-season and designed to integrate tourism into the Caymanian community. That was the mission of Pirates Week then, and it remains at the core of our efforts today.

    Over the years, Pirates Week has grown and established itself as the National Festival of the Cayman Islands. These days the festival is much more than a tourist attraction. To the generation that has grown up with Pirates Week, it emotes similar deep sentiments and a spirit of celebration parallel with such major family holidays as Christmas and provides something special to look forward to each year. No one should be unhappy with the fact that Young Caymanians are taking ownership of a cultural legacy that has remained close to the hearts of Caymanians, residents and our visitors over the years. The Editor’s views are clearly limited, and clouded by his own tunnelled perception or private ideas on the meaning of this national festival.

    Pirates Week: Festival or Carnival
    The Editor, in his criticism of PW makes a number of references to and attempts to draw comparisons with, a number of somewhat similar well known events. Let me set the record straight and correct some fallacies in his representation.

    Batabano is a carnival. Pirates Week is a festival. A festival is often periodic celebration of events and entertainment with a specified focus or theme. This year’s focus was Cayman’s Myths and Legends. PW will continue to be a festival with pirate re-enactments, but with greater focus for collaboration and growth with our community floats where all the energy is. Also each district displays their respective cultural heritage which is extremely important! We are not trying to be Brazil Carnival or any other celebration; we are Pirates Week, Cayman Islands’ National Festival.

    Pirates Week or Month
    The Editor also sought to create further confusion with even more misleading contrasts between PW and other already mentioned well known events; attempting to mock on-the-surface inconsistency with the Week in Pirates Week and the length of time the event is staged while at the same time suggesting there is no such controversy with other major events overseas.

    Again let’s get the facts straight: Rio Carnival usually starts in January and lasts till the Ash Wednesday. Since the beginning of the year, you can often see groups of people dancing samba in the streets of Rio on the weekends and during Carnival. So the celebrations start long before the actual 5 day event which is equivalent to our 2 day event. The same with Trinidad Carnival; their festivities start long before the week long Carnival.

    Pirates Week: No Identity Crisis here
    The Editorial suggested that there is not enough Pirate in Pirates Week. I will answer this quickly, like any seasoned Pirate a hook is a tool of his trade and par of his daily existence; from a marketing point of view Pirate’s Week resonates with the international community and is our drawing card or marketing tool that then allows us to offer the target audience a diverse range of events suitable, memorable and fun to all who attend. PW is an all-inclusive event; a little something for everyone with an emphasis on displaying our unique Caymanian Heritage.

    PW is an evolving festival with new life and new ideas each time around. The floats in this year’s parade identified our past. Who knows, next year we may have floats predicting our future. We welcome input and suggestions from all avenues, however be prepared to put your effort and time where your mouth is.

    Public Support
    For such a statement to be made, that the lackluster attendance and the yawning familiarity of the proceedings this year suggest that Pirates Week may have run its course, is obviously uninformed and anecdotal at best, and makes me wonder how many of the events did he himself attend if any. With the feedback and views of many people that have been highly involved with the festival for many years, this year was the best Pirates Week they had seen in over 15 years with the largest attendance in over the same time frame.

    Jolly Roger
    The Jolly Roger not being a part of the festival this year was a major disappointment for the Pirates Week Office, however, it was completely out of our control and we are very thankful for the generous contribution of the Red Sail Sports, Chip Whitney of Far Tortuga, JetPack Cayman, and The Indio sail boat. In addition to the existing sponsorship, this would be an excellent opportunity for the Caymanian Compass to get further involved by assisting with the authenticity of the landing by sponsoring a pirate ship from Gasparilla.

    As Executive Director my vision is to create lasting memories by delivering an unparalleled and authentic tourism experience through a well-designed, cohesive, culturally diverse, but rooted in a pirate’s heritage that is uniquely Caymanian.

    Rebranding is in the works with the aim to reinvent some aspects of PW and add even more excitement and appeal to the festival.

    It is often easy to be critical of leadership but for those who elect to take those positions the calling is great and is one with which I accept with pride and commitment to the Cayman Islands. As a young talented Caymanian, with the support of a dynamic, forward thinking team our National Festival is well poised to grow bigger and better going forward. Technology and social media liberalization will also help to move the festival forward.

    Change is constant and true creativity resides in being able to create something great out of little or nothing, not merely trying to be competitive. My team and I had 4 months of preparation and less than half of the targeted budget, and while we would have like to have done more, with the help of our sponsors and supporters, we worked hard and smart to bring the public a festival that delivered a high level entertainment value and did Cayman proud. 2014 will be an even better year

    Pirates Week is evolving. The focus will continue to be one of bringing the type of attention and fun to the event to attract and sustain overseas and local interest alike. No it’s not Brazil’s Rio, nor is it Trinidad Carnival; that’s not what we’re striving for – but it certainly will grow from strength to strength into what is ‘uniquely’ Our National Festival.

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