Smith Mountain Lake’s Pirate Days Set Sail

By: Olivia Carter | Photos courtesy: Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce & P.J. Nagel

Pirates and landlubbers alike rejoice as the 11th annual Smith Mountain Lake Pirate Days is back again, from July 19 to July 21.

What started as a handful of buccaneers has grown into a grand spectacle, drawing thousands from near and far, doubling in size with each year.

Led by P.J. Nagel, commodore and chief organizer, Smith Mountain Lake Pirate Days is a gathering of the local community and a chance for businesses to come together in the spirit of adventure and camaraderie.

Pirate Days was started as an effort to bring lake area businesses together to “pick up the slack” after Fourth of July, Nagel said.

“Business kind of took a tank and the theme of Pirate Days was introduced for local businesses to basically create a new holiday and it’s since morphed into a community event,” he said.

In its first year a handful of attendees, including Nagel and his crew, took to the waters and were met with curious stares from onlookers who were unsure of what was going on, Nagel said.

For the first event, there were just ten people dressed as pirates, he said, and six were with him.

“We actually decorated a boat and sailed around to different ports on the lake and people were looking at us like we were strange and had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It wasn’t marketed, it was something sent out through the Chamber of Commerce to the businesses and basically, they said, ‘Hey, this weekend is going to be pirates weekend.’”

With each passing year, Pirate Days grew and what began as a small gathering soon escalated into a full-fledged event, complete with pirate balls, sea battles, and celebrations.

But as the event grew, so too did the need for a larger space—Bridgewater Plaza, the event’s original home, eventually became too small to contain the pirates and those on land looking on.

Every year, Pirate Days looked for larger harbors, finally finding room at Crazy Horse Marina.

“We realized that, if we increase again, we’re not going to be able to stay here, right? So we started looking for a new venue and we ended up moving the entire event to Crazy Horse Marina because of the size of the property. And with moving there we subsequently saw just as much of an increase in attendance as the previous year and each year it just keeps stepping up,” Nagel said.

However, with the sale of Crazy Horse Marina, Pirate Days found itself once again without a venue.

The new venue must be waterfront and the overall space must be able to fit 100 vendors as well as a few thousand vehicles.

The events over the weekend include a Pirates Ball at Mango’s Bar & Grill at Bridgewater Marina, where staff dress as pirates and professional pirates pay a visit. There are bands playing throughout the weekend as well as mermaids swimming around, Nagel said. Pirate crews from multiple states come for the event and bring their cannons and vendors are set up on land.

Shadow Players Stage Combat Group, theatrically trained swordsmen from Raleigh, will be in attendance and there will also be sea shanty groups that play music and sing. 

Not including volunteers, there are just five paid staff members who put the weekend on.

Last year, the event brought in 10,000 over the weekend.

A large portion of Pirate Days is the water battles that take place over the weekend and many spectators watch from land.

Nagel said the water fights mysteriously evolved during the third or fourth year.

“It’s something that just happened, and it took off like wildfire. It’s nothing that we coordinate. It’s nothing that we regulate other than putting out a public service announcement,” he said.

He said pirates on the lake will load their boats with kids and super soakers and drive around the lake “attacking” other boats with water battles and it happens throughout the entire weekend.

“We do advertise a time that they should be there and the reason why we were doing that in the past is because the Virginia Dare [cruise boat] would sail to whatever venue we were at, and they sell a pirate cruise and they outfit all their customers with water guns and they would sail to a location. So in an effort to coordinate the arrival of all these public boats, we’d set a time,” he said.

Due to the popularity and size of the event, many of the area rental homes get sold out ahead of time.

“If you talk to any real estate agent that rents houses, or a real estate company that rents houses on the lake, you’d be hard pressed to find one that will tell you that the third weekend of July isn’t the most requested week of the year,” he said. “These people are spending a fair amount of money not just for the house, but they’re going to all the retail stores and all the restaurants. So the economic impact for the businesses is widespread.”

Pirate Days also employs volunteer groups from non-profits such as the Bedford Humane Society, the American Legion, and local churches. Volunteers contribute to various tasks and in return, organizations receive monetary donations. 

Nagel’s dream is to one day expand Pirate Days into a larger event like Gasparilla in Florida, which draws 700,000 people to a one-day event.

But the biggest thing Nagel takes away from the weekend is interacting with the kids that come out.

“Pirate Days is and always will be family-friendly and every year there’s always a couple of kids that stand out.”

He looks at a photo of a kid who came dressed as Captain Hook the second year the event was held who challenged Nagel to a sword fight. The kid, now a teenager, still attends and finds Nagel each year.

“We have updated pictures of the sword fight every year with the same kid,” he said. “So it’s always…it’s about the kids.”  

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