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Date of Issue: July 28, 2010

Blimey: Privateers sailing into 40 years

Robert “Bob” Boyd and John “Capt. Red Beard” Swager, both longtime members of the Anna Maria Island Privateers at the ship, Skullywag. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Yo, ho, ho, it’s the pirate’s life for Robert “Bob” Boyd.

Yo, ho, ho, it’s the pirate’s life for John “Capt. Red Beard” Swager.

Yo, ho, ho, it’s the pirate’s life for 56 other members of the Anna Maria Island Privateers, the merry and rowdy crew that plunders festivals and markets to bring home riches for Island youth and community.

In the coming year, the organization will mark its 40th anniversary.

Boyd and Swager, who have held numerous posts on the board, were around for a number of those years.

The privateers’ lore goes back to 1971, formed, according to a published history, by “a small group of individuals interested in being a support group for needed Island youth programs.”

The charter goals were to “promote activities for the betterment of youth, to render service to the community and to participate in area events.”

“It’s still about kids and community,” said Swager, noting the organization has invested hundreds of thousands into both in the past 10 years. “We’ve kept the tradition.”

In the earliest years, members parlayed in an office at the Rod & Reel Pier in Anna Maria, as would another longtime Island group, the Pier Regulars.

Boyd, at the risk of throwing down a challenge, recalled that the privateers were “like the Pier Regulars on steroids.”

Boyd was invited to check out the privateers in 1976, when there was a 30-day probation for prospective members. After he proved his merit and might, he became member No. 39 — before privateers got pirate names, they got numbers.

And before they wore the full pirate garb, they wore cut off blue jeans, bandannas, satin shirts and fake scars.

“We were a roughshod outfit,” Boyd said, remembering nights when the privateers locked bartenders into their poky and seized taverns.

“We’d help ourselves in the joint,” Boyd remembered. “A lot of people didn’t know what we were. We’d come in. Lock up the bartender. Take over.”

Other crews existed back then — the DeSoto crew had been around for about 20 years when the privateers formed and the Gasparilla crew dates back to 1904.

But the privateers were unique, in large part because of the charitable commitment to kids and community and, also, in part, because of members who celebrate individuality — hence the name. A privateer, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a self-employed soldier or sailor with a letter that allows the plundering of an enemy nation’s ship and sets the sailor above being tried for piracy.

Swager became associated with the privateers in the 1980s, but didn’t become a member until 1992.

“I was like a gray shirt for a year and a half,” he said, referring to the color of the T-shirts probationary privateers wear. When they become members, they get black shirts.

Since Swager’s joining, the membership has expanded and the composition of the organization has changed.

Originally membership was limited to those who lived and/or worked on the Island. These days, people apply from all over the region, and membership is open.

“We were starting to limit ourselves,” Swager said.

Women, who have always been associated with the group, began to become card-carrying voting members in 1999, Swager recalled. Now, with the installation of new officers for 2010-11 next week, the group will have its first female captain — Deby “Hun” Kuederle — take charge of its ship.

As the membership has changed, so has the privateer mode of travel.

The first privateer float consisted of decorated Styrofoam on a trailer. Then there was a step up with a towed boat-float that is now operated by a women’s crew in the Tampa Bay area. And then the privateers built Skullywag.

“It started life as a school bus,” Swager said of the boat-float that Islanders can see moored near Holmes Beach City Hall.

The group also has traded up on its pirate wear and accessories. The torn and cut blue jeans are gone, as are, for the most part, fake swords and toy guns.

Boyd’s pirate hat was commissioned from a shop that makes costumes for Hollywood.

Swager carries flintlock pistols and custom-built swords and his pirate clothes are “not off the rack.”

“We try to make it as real as possible,” he said. “I don’t carry the guns because of the noise. I carry the guns to be as close to period as I can.”

Both men were interested in the pirate life long before they became privateers.

“I’ve always loved everything pirate-wise,” said Boyd, who grew up  in Ohio, where he attended a school that had a pirate for a mascot. “I always thought I was a pirate in a past life.”

Swager’s roots are in Texas, where he fed on the legend of pirate Jean Lafitte.

“I’ve been hooked since I was a kid,” he said.

Boyd collects pirate-themed movies. Swager collects pirate-themed books and has about 700 volumes in his library.

The privateers use their knowledge and enthusiasm to delight children and adults at annual July 4 and Christmas parades, a barbecue table at the thieves markets, late-fall mullet smokes, as well as car shows and festivals.

They expect expanded opportunities to suit up in 2011, when they celebrate four decades of service.

“Our calendar gets bigger every year,” said Boyd.

“And next year will be bigger still,” Swager said.

Possibly ahead is the return of the privateers’ popular captures, in which they battled another crew. Those events took place on the Island years ago at haunts such as the piers and Trader Jack’s, Pete Reynard’s and Fast Eddie’s restaurants.

“They brought out all the Island people,” Swager said. “But we just don’t have those big restaurants anymore.… We want to start them back up, but we need a lot of space.”

Additionally, said Swager, members are interested in holding a big birthday bash.

“Really big,” he said. “Because we have a lot to celebrate.”