I spent the day with a bunch of pirate fanatics

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“We’re here because it’s Pirate Day and we love it,” Pat shrugs. She is 90 years old and stands in the shade with a zimmer frame. “It’s fun, it’s exciting. It brings out your inner child. She usually lives in Aylesford, in a nursing home. But today she traveled over an hour to Hastings with a bunch of other pirate fanatics.

It’s not just Pat and his buddies who showed up today. Thousands of people descended on the historic fishing town, dressed as pirates, for Britain’s annual Pirate Day. And not for the first time: the weekend-long event holds the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of “pirates” ever, which they achieved in 2012 with nearly 15,000 attendees.

Now, on a freakishly hot summer day, buccaneers and cosplay bandits are everywhere again. It’s a whole lot: traditional folk groups swarm the main stage, a parade lights up the small market streets and old-fashioned cannons explode on the beach. Plus, just like real pirates, the booze is flowing.

“We stumbled across it last year and thought, ‘Why is everyone dressed like Jack Sparrow?! Emma from Bexley, south London, tells me. She wears a corset and a hat decorated with shells.

“It was totally random,” continues his partner Luke. “But we liked it so much that this year we decided to come in disguise.” He goes on to say that his unbuttoned shirt, Cavalier boots and eyeliner are a big change from what he wears in his daily work in financials. “It’s a nice little break,” he laughs, sipping his beer.

The pirate “look” – ruffled shirts, waistcoats and tricornes (those weird triangular hats) – apparently dates back to the mid-1600s to the early 1700s, which was a particularly busy time for true pirates. That said, hackers have pretty much always existed. The earliest records of pirates date back to 5000 BC in China. Since then, piracy has existed throughout world history, from the Caribbean to Japan and ancient Greece. But these are the “golden age” pirates you’ve probably heard the most about.

As for the pirate accent—that rugged West Country drawl full of “Ahoy, me hearties!” and “Aarrrr” – which comes from the 1950 film treasure island. Specifically, it was the accent that Robert Guy Newton employed for his character Blackbeard, and again in the 1952 film Black beard. So you can blame him for every pirate voice used since.

“I think we all have an underlying love for rum,” laughs Hastings resident Zaid, standing barefoot on the cobbled streets with a glass in his hand. “Pirates were the first punks, right? They went against the grain. They wanted to take from the rich and give to the poor. We need more of that now.

Zaid wears a shaman-style robe and stepped out with his partner Mel and their children, who are seated in a puffy pirate-themed pram. I ask Mel what it’s like to live here. “Hastings feels like every bohemian can still afford to live in Brighton,” she says.

Pirates still exist today. But, far from the drunken, eyeliner persona portrayed by Johnny Depp, today’s real pirates are organized criminals who target oil tankers and kidnap their workers, or sail the ocean to enrich themselves on the black market of multi-billion pound fish. Despite this, and with the help of a few Hollywood blockbusters and pop culture cartoons, the image of the rum-drinking storyteller pirate still persists. No one here is dressed as an organized criminal from 2022 – but there are plenty of parrots on their shoulders.

“It’s Prickler, he’s five years old,” Matt from Great Yarmouth tells me, proudly introducing his glamorous parrot companions. “And that’s River Phoenix. She is nine.

I ask what being a pirate means to him. “Drinking, merry, looting…but we just like to walk around with our parrots, really,” he explains, looking at the brilliant birds of the Amazon.

Aside from an excuse for the knees up and the silly disguises, I wonder if there’s any significance to Pirate Day being held here in Hastings. I ask Pat, the elder who has been attending every year for a decade. “All along the coast, there were smugglers and pirates,” she explains, now sitting in the folding chair of her Zimmer executive.

“There’s a poem that says, ‘Look at the wall my dear as the gentlemen pass.’ This means that the local population closed their eyes when the smugglers passed with the brandy, silk and tobacco.

Pirate Day isn’t the only celebration held in Hastings. Looks like they’re always celebrating something, from crazy golf world championships to English folk party Jack In The Green to the biggest Mardi Gras event in the UK.

“It’s a city with its own culture,” Steve, 34, tells me between sips of beer from a bottle. “He has a real feeling that you don’t really go anywhere else. It is often said that Hastings is a drinking town with a fishing problem! The city dances to its own tune more than any other place I’ve been.

Steve lives in the area and bravely chose to don a bright red suit, leather tricorn and eye patch in the hot summer sun. “If I could get away with dressing like a pirate every day, I would!” After losing him in the crowd, I unexpectedly spot him hours later on the main stage. There’s a sea shanties band called Completely Scuppered playing and there he is, fidgeting in the back, flask in hand, singing backing vocals and living his best life.

There is something rare and innocent about Pirate Day in Hastings. Looking around me, I see tourists chatting to elderly locals, teenagers sitting on sidewalks drinking alcopops, taxi drivers, families, bartenders and store clerks all dressed up as pirates and liking every second. Everything is very healthy.

As a hot, noisy day turns into a cool, calm dusk, the sound of sea shanties begins to fade and the pirates begin staggering home. On the way back to the station, a drunken couple stumbles towards me. The man has a bloody nose, an eye patch drawn on his face in marker, and chaos in his eyes. The woman simply has the word CUNT written across her chest in glitter. Classic pirates.

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