Pirate Siege at Ocean Beach: Just Your Typical Sunday
On a rainy Sunday in the Shire of Cloondara, in the Principality of the Mist, in the Kingdom of the West, Princess Francesca sat on her throne and presided over buccaneers with rapiers battling for a royal treasure. Or in other, more modern terms: A bunch of medieval enthusiasts from the Society for Creative Anachronism dressed up like pirates and play-fought with swords on Ocean Beach.
“What could be more fun than playing with swords?” asked Art mac Ceallaigh, who serves as Seneschal (club president) of the San Francisco branch of the SCA.
“We have two rules in this group. First, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And second, if you’re doing something and not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
This kind of attitude has fueled the Society for Creative Anachronism for almost 50 years, and has led to what the SCA says is a steady increase in popularity and membership in the international group. The SCA breaks up into kingdoms — yes, with kings and queens — and then is subdivided into principalities, and then shires, just like Europe was divided in the Middle Ages. The kingdoms span the world. There is even an SCA branch in Afghanistan, for American soldiers stationed there.
The SCA aims to recreate all facets of medieval life: cooking, arts, singing, dance, clothing, you name it. But let’s not kid ourselves here. One of the main appeals of the SCA is the fighting. They fight with dull swords, with their tips covered to make actual injury very unlikely, but they are swords nonetheless. And it’s awesome.
The local branch of the SCA is known as the Shire of Cloondara, which has around 20 active members. They meet every Sunday in the western edge of Golden Gate Park to practice their sword-fighting and archery. But occasionally they move locations, as they did Sunday when they met at Ocean Beach for simulated pirate sieges and to host a medieval cook-off, featuring five mystery ingredients.
SCA members from as far as the Central Valley traveled to join the Shire of Cloondara’s pirate siege, with a total of about 40 members in attendance. That included the Princess of the Principality of the Mist, the governing body that covers the Bay Area. Princess Francesca spends most of her fall weekends attending SCA events throughout the Bay Area. Her role is to preside over ceremonies, hand out awards and enjoy the luxury of being treated like a princess.
“Having a princess here is our version of having a celebrity around,” Art explained to me. “It’s a really big deal.”
I’ve never spoken to a princess before, and was a bit intimidated by the idea, but was pleased to find her friendly and welcoming.
“Talk about getting a break from reality!” she laughed, explaining her 30-year involvement in the SCA. “I don’t focus on modern worries here, or juggling the many responsibilities of motherhood. It’s great. It’s my escape.”
She found the cold, rainy weather “inspiring for the theme” of a pirate siege. Francesca’s particular emphasis as a princess is in the arts, most notably stitching. She is often consulted by professors and scholars for her knowledge of medieval stitching, and is curating an upcoming exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The fighting itself was everything you’d want it to be, and although passing foot traffic was light with the constant threat of rain, pretty much every bystander stopped to watch as grown men in pirate costumes battled with swords and daggers.
Combatants dress in thick clothes and wear fencing helmets. The swords are ornate and modeled after genuine medieval weaponry. While the participants protect themselves against any puncture wounds, they still tend to come home pretty bruised after a day of fighting.
To simulate a pirate siege, a battle area was roped off, and two ships were outlined in the sand, with walkways between them.
Participants, who need to be cleared by practice-fighting a knight beforehand to ensure their skills, were divided up into pirates and members of the royal navy. The royal navy had to defend the treasure on one boat; the pirates had to steal it and get it onto theirs.
Principles for SCA fighting are simple: Blows to the arms result in a loss of use of the limb, and shots to the chest or head are considered fatal. It’s all run on the honor code, and the fighters are very honorable.
The festivities lasted all day. Mac Ceallaigh’s two rules were followed. Those who wanted to fight, fought. Those who didn’t, didn’t. They cooked, they ate, they mingled — all in their pirate attire. They had fun.
Just your typical Sunday at Ocean Beach.
All photos from Jon Weiand.