Nine Questions With a Real Southern Pirate

A few weeks ago, we delved into the question of who is the real Billy Bowlegs, patron pirate of the festival of the same name in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Today, we get to delve deeper into the question in our Q&A with Bruce Marshall, the Captain Billy of the Krewe of Bowlegs from two years ago. Bruce was kind enough to indulge us with answers to Wayne Franklin’s Nine Questions:

Boats in the Santa Rosa Sound. Photo courtesy Bruce Marshall.

The festival attracts up to 30,000 visitors to the area.  There have been as many as 3,000 boats anchored in the Sound across from Ft. Walton Landing to watch the landing of the Pirate ships and participate and play during the festival.  The remaining spectators are on the land enjoying entertainment and vendors products and viewing/participating first hand in the festivities.  Here is the schedule and an outline of the events:

1st Thursday in June

The Billy Bowlegs Festival kicks off on the first Thursday evening in June with a “Pirate Walk” for the children – local stores stay open and offer specials, there is a costume contest for the children, and the Krewe of Bowlegs parks their ship (the Blackhawk) downtown.  The children can climb on board and have their pictures taken with pirates.

This is followed at 7pm with an adult grog march/poker pub crawl at five the local bars.  This at 10 pm at the final bar prizes are given to highest poker hand and door prizes are drawn.  This event probably draws a couple hundred children and 500–1000 adult participants in the crawl.  All participants are encouraged to wear pirate garb and the Krewe of Bowlegs members wear their costumes.

Captain Billy LV and his...Delorean? Courtesy Bruce Marshall.

Festivities kick off at Ft. Walton Landing about noon.  There is constant entertainment on stage, and tents with vendors.  At about 7:30 pm, the sailing ship lands with members of the Captain’s Krewe (his Queen, Queen’s Lackey, his Lackey, First Mate and Mistress, and his Honor Guard of 10 Couples).  They come off the ship under a white flag to negotiate the capture of the city with the Mayor.  Of course, the Mayor rejects their offer and sends them on their way.  They depart with a fury of cannon fire.  This is followed at 8:30 pm with a great fireworks display, depicting a battle with the city.

1st Saturday in June

Festivities at the landing resume at about 9 am and continue throughout the day.  At about 4 pm, three large ships carrying about 450 “pirates” lands at Ft. Walton Landing to capture the city.  Participants are comprised of Krewe members and their “wenches” plus visiting out-of-town krewes and their wenches (about 180 total from out of town).  The Captain and his Krewe (referred to as the Top 26) debark and take on the Mayor and his militia in a mock battle which is always won by the Krewe of Bowlegs.  The Mayor is captured and taken aboard the Pirate’s ship and Captain Billy declares the City to be his for a week of fun and pirate frivolity.  Immediately following the win, the remaining pirates wander through the crowd distributing “booty,” mainly beads, and greeting the populace who have come to watch the festivities.  The pirates remain on land for about an hour and depart to party and celebrate.


There is a torchlight parade through the main streets of Ft. Walton Beach to celebrate the victory of Captain Billy and his Krewe.  There are many floats from the local community as well as from surrounding cities and from the visiting krewes.  The parade begins at 7 pm and consists of about 100–125 floats and entries.

2nd Saturday in June

The week’s activities culminate in the coronation of a new Captain Billy Bowlegs at a pageant, followed by an invitation-only ball.  The new Captain Billy Bowlegs LVII (57) was just announced last Saturday evening, June 11. And now, the 57th year of Billy Bowlegs is on its way.

Capt. Billy LV and his "Top 6." Courtesy Bruce Marshall.

2. Two years ago, you were the honorary Capt. Billy Bowlegs. How does one
get that honor?

I was Captain Billy Bowlegs LV (55) (2009 -2010).  It is not an honorary position.  The captain is the president of the Krewe of Bowlegs.  The Krewe is comprised of 172 active male members.  Membership in the organization is by invitation only.  The captain is someone who has been in the Krewe for some length of time, has chaired various committees, has served as an officer, and has worked hard for the Krewe.  He is one of three nominated by the past seven captains and selected solely by the sitting captain.  He is selected and notified in December, but his selection is kept secret until the coronation, the second Saturday in June.

4. What does one have to do once they are named Billy Bowlegs for the year?

The captain is responsible for everything that happens within the Krewe for the year.  This is a very autocratic organization – what the captain wants the captain gets. He is “in charge”.  He represents the Krewe at out of town festivals, in-town events, promotes tourism with the assistance of his fellow Krewe members and generally brings “pirate cheer” to the area.  The Krewe travels to Apalachicola, FL for their seafood festival in November.  In January they travel to St. Paul, MN for the Winter Carnival.  In February to Mobile, AL, the home of  Mardi Gras, for their festival.  In March to Tallahassee, FL for the springtime festival honoring Andrew Jackson. And in April the travel is to Bradenton, FL for the DeSoto Heritage Festival.  There are other out-of-town trips to visit other festivals and Krewes where fewer Krewe members participate.

Capt. Bill LV (Bruce Marshall) celebrates with fest goers.

The Krewe of Bowlegs was founded 57 years ago to promote tourism in the panhandle of Florida, the Emerald Coast.  That basic purpose has not changed, and in fact has grown so that the Billy Bowlegs Festival is one of the largest festivals in the Southeastern U.S.  The Krewe was originally comprised of community leaders who were involved in many other organizations, both for profit and non-profit in the area.  The Krewe became a social outlet for them, where they had no fund-raising or organizational responsibilities.  These same traits hold true today.  The Krewe may best be described as a fraternity where every member is part of a brotherhood – they care for each other in the good times and the bad, a point that has been proven many times.

6. The whole Bowlegs Festival has been compared to Mardi Gras. How is it similar, and how does it differ?

The Billy Bowlegs Festival does have a Mardi Gras flavor with costumes, fun, partying and parading.  The difference is that the festivals we participate in, including our own, are scattered throughout the year and not tied directly to Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras.

7. You may have seen our article about the question of where the festival got its name. Who do you think was the “real” Billy Bowlegs?

We definitely claim William Augustus Bowles as “Billy Bowlegs.”  Three years ago, we established a 501(c)3 organization – the William Augustus Bowles Museum and Historical Foundation.  The purpose of this Foundation is to preserve the heritage of piracy on the Emerald Coast and to build a Pirate Museum with educational interactive displays that will result in attracting additional tourists to this area.

8. What about the Billy Bowlegs Festival is uniquely Southern, if anything?

The uniquely Southern part of the Billy Bowlegs Festival is the hospitality.  The (people of) area welcome tourists with open arms and join together with the visitors to have a great time.  The warmth and friendliness of Southern hospitality is hard to beat.

9. Final question: How would you define a Real Southern Man?

The Southern man is a gentleman, and I believe we all are – pirates or not.  Even in our costumes when we are portraying pirates, we are still gentleman.

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  1. Be a Real Southerner: Read our Weekly Round-Up | Real Southern Men - June 25, 2011

    […] there’s no harm in pretending. For proof, check out our interview with Bruce Marshall, the 55th Captain Billy Bowlegs from Fort Walton’s pirate festival of the same […]

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