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Orange County FAMILY

A Pirate's (Real) Life

Port Royal Privateers drop anchor at O.C.'s Maritime History Center to lay waste to misinformation.

January 22, 1998|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most days, she's your average working mom, but on some weekends, Christine Lampe undergoes a strange metamorphosis.

She'll round up 50 or so of her best mates and start plotting and pillaging, belting out salty chanteys and generally reveling in the gloriously gritty life of a 17th century pirate for hire.

Riverside resident Lampe is co-founder of the Port Royal Privateers, a group of Southern California pirate enthusiasts bound by a common love of history and a taste for make-believe larceny.

Members, who range from college-age kids (minimum age is 18) to senior citizens, portray fictitious sea dogs who might have prowled the Caribbean during the 17th and early 18th centuries, what they call the Golden Age of Piracy.

The group has appeared at the Tallships Festival in Dana Point, area Renaissance fairs and, last fall, at Mission San Juan Capistrano in a re-creation of the 1818 storming of the mission by French privateer Hippolyte Bouchard.

On Saturday in the Orange County Marine Institute's Maritime History Center, they'll hold a free informational workshop covering such topics as costumes in the time of 17th century privateer Henry Morgan (better known these days as spokespirate for Captain Morgan's rum) and working aloft in a ship's rigging. The sessions are intended for current and prospective members but will be open to interested members of the public as well, Lampe said.

If you can't think of pirates without conjuring up images of blackhearted brigands with hoop earrings and peg legs, you're not alone. Lampe says most folks are sorely misinformed on the history of pirates, and even more are foggy about the role of privateers.

"Privateers were sort of like a private navy," she explained. "If a country . . . didn't have a big enough navy of its own, it would license privateers to attack the ships of the enemy" and raid its cargo.

Booty was then divided between the privateers and their employer, with about 10% going to the hiring government and the balance going to the captain and his crew, Lampe said.

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Contrary to popular belief, the hard-won treasure rarely wound up buried on an island, she said. Privateers, and their self-authorized kin, pirates, preferred to, shall we say, reinvest their profits in the local economy.

"They spent it fast and furiously as soon as they got back to port," Lampe said with a laugh. "A few of them did save up enough to maybe buy a plantation . . . but most of them went to a tavern and spent it on women and drink and gambling and it was gone in three days.

"They were a pretty hedonistic group," she added with satisfaction.

As a Port Royal Privateer, Lampe portrays Jamaica Rose, a map maker and part-time privateer/adventurer from Port Royal, Jamaica. She calls the area "the Sodom and Gomorrah of the modern world" because of the high level of pirate activity there.

Lampe, who can reel off names, dates and details of privateer escapades at the drop of a tricorn, said she and other members spend a lot of time trolling books for accurate information on the era. They do, however, take certain dramatic liberties with the data. (Research, for example, shows that seagoing men rarely wore hoop earrings but many of the Privateers sport them for fun.)

Not all members of the Privateers have their sea legs, but those who do, like Lampe, like to fine-tune their sailing skills by volunteering as crew on local tall ships.

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This weekend, visitors who would like a similar experience can sign aboard one of two tall ships visiting OCMI, the Hawaiian Chieftain and the Lady Washington.

The ships, replicas of 18th century square riggers that measure more than 100 feet long each, are touring the California coastline this winter through an educational program called Voyage of ReDiscovery and will be available at OCMI for dockside tours Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Landlubbers who want to go over the bounding main can book a three-hour afternoon tour aboard the ships that will include a reenactment of an at-sea battle complete with blazing cannons. Costumed crew members will be on board to answer questions, and passengers are welcomed to lend a hand with the sailing, spokeswoman Lynn McFarlane said.

Also available for touring will be OCMI's resident tall ship, the Pilgrim, a replica of the brig sailed by Richard Henry Dana before writing his classic, "Two Years Before the Mast." (The Pilgrim will not sail, as it is undergoing mechanical repairs.) As OCMI's Dan Steton notes, the brig is enjoying celebrity status these days, having appeared as four different ships in the feature film "Amistad."

The Port Royal Privateer pirate workshop will run Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. All sessions are free, but space is on a first-come, first-served basis. There may be a small materials fee charged.

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