Four former members of the Seafair Pirates say they have left the group due to what they described as a growing emphasis on drinking alcohol and targeting women. Five organizations have suspended the pirates or disassociated from them because of problematic behavior.
The Seafair Pirates, Seattle’s beloved rogues, have sometimes acted the part too well.
A fixture on the summer parade circuit since their inception in 1949, the Pirates have spent the past seven decades alternately entertaining and frustrating the masses. The Pirates of old came under fire throughout the 1960s and ’70s for piratical behavior — shackling a woman to a hotel bed, faux kidnappings and general alcohol-induced misbehavior — that led to a four-year ban from Seafair events and a rebranding effort.
In later years, they continued to update their methods to keep pace with Seattle’s evolving standards of decency. They focused less on women and more on entertaining children, and spent less time drinking and more time at charity events.
But there are signs the organization has slid back toward its rowdier roots in recent years. Four former pirates — among them two former captains — said they have left the group due to what they described as a growing emphasis on drinking alcohol and targeting women. Five organizations have suspended the pirates or disassociated with them because of problematic behavior. In April, one of the pirates was cited for fourth-degree assault after forcibly kissing a woman at an event in Puyallup.
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“We’ve seen the Pirate organization evolve, or devolve, and it hasn’t been a great mix for our family audience,” said Tim Kuniholm, the director of public affairs at the Seattle Aquarium, one of the locations that is no longer inviting the Pirates to events. “In the last few years, there’s been more open drinking in public and interactions with our volunteers and folks here that are inappropriate.”
Current Pirates President Daniel Sullivan said the group hasn’t had any complaints “for a long time” and that The Seattle Times was not the first to attempt to “besmirch” the group’s name.
“We are an outstanding group of men who do great work in our community, we have tremendous support and after almost 70 years, there’s a lot of credibility there,” he wrote in an email to The Times.
At gatherings and parades, the pirates have long entertained children from a ship adorned with nautical flags stretching from bow to stern. Each flag’s colorful stripes and shapes represent a letter of the alphabet, which can be decoded into a message.
At many events, including the parade in Puyallup earlier this April, the message was directed at the women in the crowd: “Show us your tits.”
One of five groups in the Seafair family, the Pirates are composed of several dozen volunteers, clad in swashbuckling vests and equipped with swords, whose aim is to support Seafair and promote goodwill by participating in parades and charity events throughout the year.
Becoming a Seafair Pirate is a lengthy process that requires a prospective member to obtain a sponsor who is a current pirate. Only after 12 months of training can a candidate ride Moby Duck — the group’s mobile ship — as a full-fledged Seafair Pirate.
One of the typical events on the pirate calendar is the Marysville Strawberry Festival.
The pirates had attended the event for years. But in 2013, the parade’s organizing body warned them that the continuance of “a trend of unsafe and inappropriate behavior” would result in a suspension, according to Marysville Police Department spokesman Mark Thomas.
The following year, the Pirates were again found in violation of festival rules and received a three-year ban from the Marysville parade and festival.
Behavior included accusing a festival-board member of lying to cover up an issue in the Pirates’ parade application, consuming alcohol during the parade and an “unpleasant interaction” with local law enforcement, according to a letter from the Maryfest Executive Board informing the Seafair Pirates of their suspension.
“It would seem as though the Pirates have lost their way and believe the Festival is about them and not that of a guest,” the Maryfest Executive Board wrote in the letter. “The Parade and festival community is a small one and the numbers of comments made about the Pirates the last couple of years are not flattering. I would hope that your leadership takes this to heart.”
At the Seattle Aquarium, the Pirates historically had an “open invitation” to participate in events at the Aquarium during Seafair and around Halloween, Kuniholm said. But after what he described as inappropriate interactions with volunteers and visitors, plus growing concern for animal safety due to the Pirates’ refusal to tone down the noise of their cannon, that invitation was rescinded around 2013.
And in Issaquah, three years of public complaints about the Pirates’ behavior during the parade culminated in a verbal confrontation between the Issaquah police chief and a Pirate.
“The police chief called me in and said that’s not appropriate behavior for our event and they can’t be back,” said Robin Kelley, who served as the festival director for Issaquah Salmon Days festival until 2016. “And when our police chief says they can’t come back, it’s pretty definitive.”
Emails exchanged between Kelley and the Issaquah police chief at the time indicate that the final straw occurred in 2009, though the Pirates told Kelley they couldn’t attend the following year anyway, citing not enough available members.
Pirates president Sullivan, who has been involved with the group for five years, initially said the only complaint the group received in recent years was at the Ballard 17th of May parade. When a reporter described other organizations that complained about the Pirates, he called the allegations “old news.”
An administrator for the Ballard parade, Laura Hanson, confirmed the Pirates have not been in the 17th of May parade since 2014. Sullivan said the fractured relationship with Ballard stemmed from a communication error involving the parade route.
Vicki Hoyt, the chief of the Seafair Parade Marshals, said she wasn’t aware of any issues or complaints about the Pirates other than in Ballard, but added that those complaints likely would have gone straight to the Pirates.
Former member speaks
The four former Pirates described a culture in which poor behavior was the norm and pirates frequently showed up to parades inebriated or made lewd remarks to female paradegoers.
“The drunkenness and not showing up to things we were supposed to show up to got us into a lot of trouble,” said Ron Paul, who joined the Pirates in 1998 and served as the group’s captain in 2005.
Paul described instances of Pirates falling down drunk during parades and members skipping charity events or showing up hungover. He said he left the group in 2015 after growing increasingly concerned by what he perceived as a shift away from entertainment and toward womanizing and drinking.
Sullivan insisted the group is serious about moving away from that reputation.
The flags on their ship, for example, that had flown for at least 17 years were “immediately” changed in recent months “when we took a closer look and realized the message,” Sullivan said. The flags now spell out “Seafair Pirates.”
But, last week at the Greenwood Seafair Parade, while handing out pins that said “I’ve been had by the Seattle Seafair Pirates,” one pirate wore a vest with a similar tone: “Got breastmilk?”
In the Cayman Islands, which used to coordinate subsidized travel to the island nation for its annual Pirates Week Festival each fall, the Seafair Pirates sent delegations as early as 1984 and as recently as 2013, according to former Pirates Week Festival committee member Colin Wilson and current executive director Melanie McField.
However, in 2013, the group’s six-man delegation did not show up to several scheduled appearances and were hungover at others, Wilson said. Though the government has not disinvited the group, it has not offered sponsored airfare and hotels since, and the pirates have not gone.
Mark Jensen, a former Pirate who left the group in 2012 after serving as special assistant to the captain for more than a decade, estimated that he received approximately two complaints each year accusing pirates of sexual harassment.
One woman, Lesley Harrison, recalled a 2009 incident when the Pirates visited her workplace. She said a pirate stuck a sticker on her lower chest, then grabbed and hugged her.
“I felt really kind of violated,” she said of the interaction, which she reported to the police.
The following year, while attending the Greenwood Seafair Parade, Bonnie Johnson — who suffers from PTSD and has autism — said she was cornered by a Pirate, who began yelling at her for not smiling.
“I assume everyone just thought it was part of his pirate act, but I think he used that position to his advantage to excuse what he did,” she wrote in an email to The Times. “I still couldn’t speak and eventually he backed off and went to leave. I was relieved until he leaned back in and shoved his fake doubloons (gold coins) down the front of my dress. It was humiliating.”
And this year, on April 8, a woman stopped by Sparks Firehouse Deli in Puyallup to grab a Coke with a co-worker. When a Seafair pirate offered a button in exchange for a kiss, the woman and her friend agreed. But, the woman told the Puyallup Police, when she went in to kiss the pirate on the cheek, he turned his head and “forced his tongue” into her mouth, splitting her lip in the process.
The woman later pressed charges, and the Pirate — Stephen Cox, 55, of Redmond — was cited for fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor offense.
Sullivan, the president of the Pirates, declined to comment about the incident, and Cox did not return phone calls from The Times requesting comment.
“Like any organization, we are constantly self reviewing and evaluating our processes,” Sullivan said.