Get Your Pirate On at the 67th Annual Billy Bowlegs Festival!


By Lori Leath Smith

Billy Bowlegs Bowlegs Kids 2Ahoy, maties! Avast, ye! It’s time to open your treasure chest, get your eyepatch on, take out your sword and get your pirate gear ready for 2023’s 67th Annual Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival—May 18-22.

This is the second year the festival has been established on its new dates (the weekend after Mother’s Day), but Pirate Captain Billy Bowlegs has been setting his sights on our sandy white shores since the 1950s! As all you landlubbers know, it’s been Captain Billy’s mission to take control of the fair seas near Fort Walton Beach since then. Will we prevail in keeping the dastardly pirate crew from gaining a foothold along our sands?

Produced in partnership with the William Augustus Bowles Foundation, the Krewe of Bowlegs, the City of Fort Walton Beach, the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, and local businesses and community organizations, since 1954, the festival’s purpose has been to promote business and tourism, and showcase our beautiful Emerald Coast community.
Billy Bowlegs 1 Bowlegs Krewe Of BlackEach year, a new “Captain Billy” plays the part of the fun and not-so-horrible pirate hoodlum. This year, Fort Walton Beach native James Baughman takes the helm as Captain Billy Bowlegs LXVII. He and his wife, Diane Wyman Baughman, also born and raised in the Fort Walton Beach area, were high school sweethearts. “We always looked forward to the Bowlegs treasure hunt clues that would appear in what was then the Playground Daily News, and to the Torchlight Parade,” they recall. “As someone who grew up in Fort Walton Beach with the Billy Bowlegs Festival, I never imagined I would one day be Captain Billy. I am humbled and honored to have this opportunity to serve the Krewe and the community,” James said.

James is joined this year by the 67th Queen of Bowlegs, Amy Wendel and her husband, Bill. Also on board are the 67th First Mate and First Mistress of Bowlegs, Bobby and Amy McBride. Ten additional couples form Captain Billy’s Honor Guard and round out the group known this year as the ‘Krewe in Black.’

James, along with his ‘Krewe in Black,’ was “unveiled” as this year’s new Captain Billy back in June ‘22 at the 67th Krewe of Bowlegs Coronation Pageant held at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College. He feels being a new “Captain Billy” is an honor and a responsibility to reflect and promote the festival that draws locals and visitors alike. “We have to look back to the founding of the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival and the Krewe of Bowlegs for guidance in preserving its traditions,” said the new captain. “In 1953, local business and community leaders hosted a Labor Day weekend water ski show as a way of attracting tourists for one last business push before the long, slow winter season. Building upon the success of the water ski show, the idea of a pirate festival was put forth based on the legend of Captain Billy Bowlegs, a pirate of questionable authenticity who operated in nearby waters, and who was thought to be historical figure William Augustus Bowles. Recognizing that a pirate festival would need pirates, local businessmen stepped up and hired local seamstresses to create pirate costumes, and that is how the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival, and shortly thereafter the Krewe of Bowlegs, was born,” said James. The festival was then organized by the Jaycees. “We are proud to carry on the tradition and the original purpose of the festival,” he said.

New each year, the festival’s theme reflects the personality of the new captain. ‘Loud & Proud’ represents Captain Billy 67’s love of loud music and loud motorcycles. But, he said, “It also symbolizes American freedom, independence and the power embodied by the military capabilities in our local area that defend this nation.” His ‘Krewe in Black’ are ready to rumble.

Contrary to what some may believe, “Private funds pay for all of the custom-made costumes, the beads, cups and coins that are thrown in parades (16 throughout the year), as well as the locally-chartered landing boats,” James said. “The Krewe of Bowlegs receives no direct funding from the City of Fort Walton Beach, the county or the TDD. And while the Krewe of Bowlegs itself is not a charitable organization, our tradition is to support the community and we make several public appearances throughout the year in support of educational and charitable causes.” The Krewe of Bowlegs also works with the William Augustus Bowles Museum & Historical Foundation which helps underwrite fireworks, the treasure hunt and other expenses. The City of Fort Walton Beach also underwrites festival expenses and provides critical police, fire, EMS and other support.

Billy Bowlegs 2 Bowlegs 35210656 10156621594473856 1246867540475379712 NThe festival kicks off this year with a Pre-Invasion on Thursday evening, May 18th, just off Main St. downtown, where Captain Billy Bowlegs and his ‘Krewe in Black’ will arrive aboard their pirate ship parade float, the Blackhawk, to greet area children, take photos and hand out treasure. The Skirmish will be held on Friday evening, May 19th, where Captain Billy and his Krewe will arrive by water at the Fort Walton Landing. The mayor of Fort Walton Beach and his forces are prepared and have threatened to arrest Captain Billy if he tries to land. The city of Fort Walton Beach will also host its Concert in the Park, and the evening will end with a Fireworks show over the sound. On Saturday afternoon, May 20th, Captain Billy will return with the entire Krewe of Bowlegs and his allies from visiting Krewes from across the country, after his defeat the night prior. The mayor will try everything to stop him from landing. Will he be a match for the overwhelming presence of Captain Billy’s pirates? Will the Captain prevail in taking over our city?

Finally, on Monday night, May 22nd, the Torchlight Parade will start at 7 p.m. on Eglin Pkwy. from First St. to Hughes Ave. The parade will be anchored by Captain Billy and the entire Krewe of Bowlegs marching down the street to celebrate Captain Billy Bowlegs’ 67th annual capture of Fort Walton Beach.

Any local who has been around long enough looks forward to the famed treasure hunt. Captain Billy says there are fewer than 100, limited-edition, two-inch treasure coins, each having an individually engraved serial number. Some coins are being hidden with published clues, some are being given away on the radio and on social media, and some by Captain Billy personally at public appearances. The winning coin will be chosen by a live drawing on May 20th at the Fort Walton Landing with the Grand Prize valued at $1,000.

In between the Skirmish and Torchlight Parade, there’s all sorts of grub and grog, from ice cream to seafood. There will be live music and entertainment, fireworks a plenty and vendors showcasing lots of pirate booty and the like. For scallywags young and old, there’s arts and crafts booths, food, refreshments and bouncy houses. Our high seas are filled with hundreds of boats lining the mile-long sandbar off the Fort Walton Landing, where a melting pot of people will make their way to pillage, plunder and drink rum.

FWB Life implores you to be ‘Loud & Proud’ and boldly stand guard to defend our piece of paradise at this year’s festival. Want to play a part? To enter the parade, download the entry form at Captain Billy 67 is looking for a BIG 2023 turnout! So, join him and his ‘Krewe in Black’ as they ‘Turn it up to 11!’ and take over the city of Fort Walton Beach!

Thursday Evening, May 18
Pre-Invasion, Downtown Fort Walton Beach
Friday Evening, May 19
Skirmish & Fireworks, Fort Walton Landing
Saturday, May 20
Invasion, Fort Walton Landing, Downtown Street Party, Fireworks
Monday, May 22, 7 p.m.
Torchlight Parade, Downtown Fort Walton Beach