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Saturday, July 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:18 AM

Seafair hooked on its pirates

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seafair Pirates land on Alki Beach in 2002, an event to be repeated today. The group is popular now, but unruly behavior in decades past led to the Pirates being kicked out of Seafair at one point.

When the Seafair Pirates arrive on Alki Beach today, they'll distribute hundreds of pirate costumes to children.

It's a far cry from decades past. During parades in the 1950s and 1960s, the pirates yanked mothers away from their children and one year "kidnapped" a woman and tied her up in a hotel room. They were kicked out of Seafair in 1967, only to return a few years later.

Now, the 45 men, who range in age from their early 20s to their early 70s, regularly don tricorn hats and carry fake swords to appear at events and fund-raisers around the region. They remain a fixture at Seattle's monthlong Seafair festival.

Today, the pirates will drive onto Alki Beach in their formerly amphibious custom vehicle, the Moby Duck, and take the keys to Seattle from the Seafair princesses. The pirates stick around to entertain people at the West Seattle American Hi-Yu Summer Festival as well.

It's a tradition that, in one form or another, has been around since the Pirates formed in 1950 as an all-volunteer performers group to entertain the crowds at Seafair. The Pirates "battle" with the Seafair-selected King Neptune for control of the festival.

DC Smith, 44, said it is the pirates' job to entertain by being noisy, singing, dancing and acting like, well, pirates.

In the early years, that meant being brazen, frightening and naughty.

A Duck of a truck

The Moby Duck, the Seafair Pirates' flagship, is a surplus World War II amphibious truck known as a DUKW. Designed in 1942, 21,000 of the floating trucks were used in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, carrying troops and supplies directly from ships to shore.

The U.S. Army sold as surplus much of its equipment after World War II ended. The pirates purchased the vehicle, which has since been extensively modified to look like a Spanish galleon. It is armed with a loud siren and small cannon that's no louder than a 12-gauge shotgun. It can be driven, but it's no longer amphibious.

In the late 1960s, at the Rose Festival parade in Portland, they walked ahead of the Seafair float, counter to the preset order of the parade — an account the Pirates dispute to this day. But the incident, along with growing community complaints about the pirates' unruly behavior, prompted Seafair organizers to sever ties with the group. The "kidnappings" had become unacceptable, pirate Mark Jensen, 41, said.

Dick Munsell, a 42-year pirate, puts it differently.

"There were a couple of occasions when we overstayed our welcome," he said. "We got into a lot of trouble, but by and large, people loved us."

They were asked to return in 1970; by then, they had formed a private organization, unaffiliated with Seafair. They've since traveled to shows around the world.

"They were wonderfully funny, bizarre even," said Seattle Councilwoman Jean Godden, a former Seattle Times columnist. "Without the pirates, [Seafair] was dull."

The pirates have had to change the routine a little. They still sing bawdy pirate songs, roar and wave their swords. They've stopped firing their shotguns — blanks only — because Seattle police said they sounded too much like real gunshots. They pride themselves on using their act as a fund-raiser for hospitals and children's charities.

And they're still something of a fraternal organization. Those who want to join have to find a sponsor within the group. Members meet weekly, in addition to any scheduled shows or appearances. Each member pays dues and provides his own costume.

Tony Fowler will become a full-fledged pirate in August. He's spent a year in "initiation," waiting on members at meetings, washing the Moby Duck and undergoing challenges by his fellow pirates. It's a test of a candidate's ability to entertain and perform in public, Jensen said.

"If you can't handle the hazing, then you will not be able to handle a crowd. We have got to know how you will react to stress before we give you this," Jensen said, holding up a sword.

Those involved with Seafair say the pirates remain a highlight of the event. Munsell thinks they're the draw of the Torchlight Parade.

"The vendors have told us, 'People come when you come and people leave when you leave.' It's a phenomenon," he said, grinning. "You get to do things as a pirate that you would never be able to do."

Victor Gonzales: 206-464-2393 or

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