Few things excite a pirate like sunken treasure.
John “Dry Rot” Ferguson holds up a ring with an open-web design and a glittering stone.
“This tiger-eye ring I found in eight feet of water in Smith’s Cove,” says Ferguson, digging the piece of jewelry from a box filled with bracelets, necklaces and other booty. It will be part of his outfit Friday as Pirates Week kicks off.
Ferguson is one of a trove of devotees who dedicate a solid chunk of their lives to preparing for Pirates Week. He even got married, in full pirate regalia, during the 2003 festival.
The annual event is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend as the main celebration – which began last weekend in Cayman Brac – takes hold of George Town. An invasion by a pair of pirate ships is scheduled to take place, along with street fights and a parade.
Ferguson, 59, has been dressing the part of a pirate for the past 24 years. One room of his house is largely devoted to his passion. Trunk-sized storage bins are filled with colorful and ornate clothing.
“You can never have too many pirate clothes,” he says, pawing through scarves, blouses and pants, pulling out examples of what he’s worn in the past and what he may incorporate into his costume this year. And, as there is no Pirates ‘R’ Us, those elements are gathered from diverse places.
Orneil Galbraith shows off a belt from a costume shop in North Carolina, a metal purse and a shrunken head from a store in Seattle, hip-high leather boots from a friend, and a beaded necklace with skulls from a fellow pirate. Some pieces are custom made, such as the ornate justaucorps-style jacket, made popular during the reign of Louis XIV, that he had sewn by Super Stitch, a Cayman company.
Getting ready may take a little longer for Ferguson this year. He plans to work with local makeup artist Tansy Maki, and she has some serious designs in mind. She shows Ferguson a photo of Bootstrap Bill Turner, with barnacles and sea creatures attached to one side of his face.
“I wanted to do a pirate with crustaceans growing out of your head,” Maki says, sitting at Ferguson’s dining table. “I’ve always wanted to do a group of the undead pirates.”
Maki said she likes keeping the fantasy alive. She won’t do skulls and blanches at the thought of stripes, but she’s not wholly devoted to historical authenticity.
“I’m more into the theatrical,” she says, “something that has that wow factor.”
Getting wow reactions is no problem for Darvin Ebanks, who has long been the face of Pirates Week. Ebanks, 66, has been part of the festival since it started in 1977. For years he was the prominent presence on the promotional posters. His face became even more well known when he started decorating it with temporary tattoos about 15 years ago.
The tall Cayman native with a shaved head and strong features is a striking figure even without the swirling lines that crawl across his face when he becomes a pirate.
“People say, ‘You look really frightening’,” he says with laugh.
For years, Ebanks says, his pirate costumes were colorful and flamboyant – more Hollywood than historic. But in the mid-1990s, he says, he began to transition from flashy to more factual.
“Over the years, I’ve researched piracy,” he says. “My costume has evolved to what pirates really looked like. It’s wrinkled and stained. I used to have a lot of the pins, but to be more realistic, I don’t wear them anymore.”
Pieces of his outfit go back many years. He holds up a sword with a brass handle decorated with two human figures.
“My cousin gave me this back in the ‘70s,” he says. “The handle is very authentic. Because it’s so old, (the blade) is kind of going. I can’t do sword fights with it.”
Much like Ferguson – and any good pirate, really – Ebanks’s outfit is pieced together from material that comes from diverse sources. A decorated steer horn he uses as a drinking vessel came from Cuba. He picked up his $150 dagger in Cayman. He has three custom-made dragoons – non-functional flintlock pistols – that he purchased online for $250 a piece. His black felt hat was designed to his specifications to look like the one Geoffrey Rush’s character wears in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. He paid $300 for it.
“This is basically designed off Barbosa’s hat,” he says, pointing out a bullet hole and slash marks from sword blades. “I lost the first one I had made. I set it on top of a taxi.”
The cab was long gone by the time he realized his mistake. He ordered another.
Ebanks heads a crew of pirates called the Bloody Bay Buccaneers, formed in 2013 when, typical of a pirate organization, there was a mutiny among the original Las Tortugas Pirates.
The captain of Las Tortugas, the man who mutinied, is Galbraith. He too is dedicated to making his character of Gunpowder Wes as authentic – and intimidating – as possible, even when he talks to schoolchildren about the history of pirates in Cayman and the Caribbean.
“I tell kids, ‘If you don’t listen, I’ll cut your fingers off and wear the bones around my neck,’” he says with a savage grin. “Pirates are bad people.”
The threat may carry some weight, since Galbraith wears a necklace with bones, wooden beads, some turquoise nuggets and a human tooth – his own.
“I went to Cuba to get some dental work done and they had to pull one of my teeth,” Galbraith says. “I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do with that’.”
The origins of the bones are a little less intriguing.
“That’s Domino’s wings bones,” he says.
Galbraith said he got the bug to be more accurate with his costuming after attending a Renaissance fair in Georgia 10 years ago.
“That’s the first time I saw other pirates, besides the ones that come down here,” he says. “I got an eye-opener.”
He says he discovered what he’d been wearing was largely all wrong.
“I bought boots, all-leather boots,” he says. “I got my first belt with a brass buckle. My boots alone were US$400. I spent about $500 that day, and a lot more after that. I made sure when I came home I had some cool stuff.”
He drags out sword after sword – some he’s paid hundreds of dollars for – along with daggers and pistols. He grabs a jacket that he custom designed himself, based on historic drawings. He drops plastic jewels and shiny coins onto a table. All the trappings of a good seafaring bandit.
Much of it will be on display when he and the other players of Pirates Week take to their ships and to the streets of Grand Cayman.
The payoff for real pirates lay in the treasure chest of some unfortunate ship and its crew. The payoff for Galbraith and his fellow buccaneers is a bit different.
“I like to see the reaction in people’s faces when they see our float and they see us,” Galbraith says. “Then I say, ‘I did something good.’”