Knoxville Pirate Fest plundered by weapons policy

7:00 PM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
  • Captain John Farmer
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John Farmer used to run a computer consulting company, but abandoned that career for a chance to set sail as a riverboat captain.

"I started out in 2002 on the Mississippi River.  I've spent most of my time here in Knoxville with Tennessee River Boat Company as captain of 'The Star of Knoxville' and my smaller boat," said Farmer.

When he is not navigating the Tennessee River, Captain Farmer is hooked on pirate history.

"It is something that interested me and I went to a pirate festival at Tybee Island (near Savannah, Georgia).  Then I started searching for other festivals and found thousands of them.  Pirate reenacting is second only to Civil War reenacting," said Farmer.

The riverboat captain embarked on an effort to organize Knoxville's first "Pirate Fest" at Volunteer Landing.  Farmer said he thought the event could make a little loot for his riverboat operation and help Knoxville tourism.

"A group of us started working on different plans for around six or seven months for authentic pirate vendors, children's events, magic shows, that kind of thing.  We decided it needed to be an event in the spring or fall because pirate gear is heavy and hot.  We talked about the possibility of having the first Pirate Fest in conjunction with the Orange and White game, but UT does not announce the date for that event early enough to give us time to really promote the festival," said Farmer.

The pirate festival plan truly ran aground recently due to Farmer's desire for authenticity.

"I went to the Police Department to try to find out about any problems we might encounter with black powder weapons and cannons here."  Farmer added, "There was no problem with the guns.  It was the swords that would not be allowed.  The law does not allow people to carry knives with blades longer than four inches in public.  Swords are obviously a lot longer than that."

"The effort to bring people to Volunteer Landing is very much appreciated, but we just want to make sure everybody is safe," said Angela Rauber, an attorney for the City of Knoxville who advises the city's special events department.  "We let Mr. Farmer know they can do it [the festival], but not have real weapons."

Farmer said cutting the cutlass from a pirate festival has left the idea dead in the water.  He said any passionate privateer who plundered their own bank accounts for real replicas would rather be keelhauled than show up with an empty scabbard.

"These guys get really into it.  They spend thousands of dollars on their pirate gear and replica swords.  I'm afraid, therefore, they would not be interested in coming to an event where they could not display that," said Farmer.

Civil War enthusiasts who help with living history events at city parks such as Fort Dickerson said some who perform as soldiers carry real swords.  Likewise, participants in various parades carry sharpened swords.

"My pistol is a replica pistol. My sword is real and it is sharp," said Farmer.

10News contacted other cities that hold pirate festivals.  Tybee Island officials said people attending their festival are not supposed to have real swords.  In Greenville, North Carolina, many of the pirates with swords are performers paid by the city.

"The way we get around it is we have swords that are dull.  They are blunted and not sharp," said Steve Whetzel, an acclaimed pirate performer for the Shadow Players in North Carolina.  "We also only perform in areas where we have room.  When places hire us, we sign waivers and we also have to carry insurance policies.  If we show our weapons, we always keep one hand on them and do not do it in the middle of a large crowd.  The weapons never leave our grasps and are always in control."

Whetzel said sometimes amateur pirate enthusiasts will show a lapse of judgment with a sharpened scimitar.

"It is really rare.  The people who come to these events are really careful with their replicas because they are expensive and they do not want to hurt anyone.  If you ever see someone doing something dumb like waving a real cutlass around, you also notice people tend to self-police and tell them to put the weapon away."

As for the possibility of a Knoxville Pirate Fest, Farmer said the plans are currently marooned unless an exception is granted to the weapons rule.

"We may also try to see if there is a different location we can host the festival where it would be on private property, but obviously our preferred choice is Volunteer Landing," said Farmer.


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