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HomeNewsArchivesBe Ye Tour Guide or Scofflaw? Pirates Harbour Tour in Hot Water

Be Ye Tour Guide or Scofflaw? Pirates Harbour Tour in Hot Water

Feb. 26, 2009 — Take a ride on the Pirates Harbour Tour and you'll learn that in the old days pirates used to get put in cages, hanged or worse.
These days, some local pirates' crimes are considerably less drastic than in days of yore, and punishment isn't as sordid. Today's Virgin Islands' pirates just get fined.
While they won't be going to the gallows, Pirates Harbour Tours, which operates three vessels in Charlotte Amalie's harbor, has been issued $2,000 in citations this week for operating an illegal water taxi, according to the V.I. Taxi Commission.
The company offers tours of the harbor on a prepaid ticket basis, stopping at Havensight, the Waterfront and Crown Bay. Between these destinations, passengers are regaled with pirate lore and given commentary on the scenery and the history of St. Thomas. Tickets are not supposed to be sold on board.
On Wednesday, aboard the pirate vessel "William," Wendy Gill gave plenty of pirate history to cruise-ship passengers who joined the tour at Havensight.
For the tour, Gill plays the role of a 12th-generation descendant of Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who plied the waters of the Caribbean with the likes of notorious lady pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Gill and her coworkers dress in pirate garb, talk with a "pirate accent" and throw in an occasional "arrgh" and "scurvy dog" whenever their script calls for it.
The pirate crew members learn their roles, study pirate history and then work with a drama coach to learn how to best entertain the tour's passengers, Gill said. Scripts are changed throughout the day to keep the stories fresh for repeat passengers.
Gill interpreted pirate flags for the passengers on Wednesday, explaining the meanings of five different Jolly Rogers, some with crossed sabers, some with crossbones, some with a whole skeleton and some with hearts.
"Most pirates couldn't read," Gill explained.
The flags were a psychological warfare tool for the pirates.
"If you were captured by a pirate ship flying a Jolly Roger, your life would be spared," Gill told the passengers. "But if you were captured under the blood flag, you could expect no quarter."
Passengers listened intently and laughed when the pirates pretended to fire on a passing boat — accompanied by the sound of a cannon blast from the tour's stereo system.
Denise and Barrie Milburn-Jones of North Wales, UK, said they had arrived in St. Thomas for the day aboard the Sea Princess and took the pirate's tour to the waterfront.
The Milburn-Jones said they had visited St. Thomas before, but the experience of seeing it from the water made this visit more enjoyable, and they were impressed with the crew's charisma.
"It's much better this time," Denise Milburn-Jones said. "It's a novelty for us to be on the water. It is a fantastic introduction to the island. Even the children on board this morning thought she [Gill] was fantastic, as soon as she started, they were all jumping around."
Her husband agreed.
"It's nice to have the option," Barrie Milburn-Jones said." I think that if anyone hasn't used it, they have missed out."
The couple said they intended to tell all their shipboard friends about the tour.
Some see the tour negatively, though.
On Monday, Pirates Harbour Tours was the target of a sting operation conducted by the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and the V. I. Taxicab Commission, resulting in two citations with fines of $1,000 each for two counts of operating an illegal water taxi, according to Judith Wheatley, executive director of the Taxicab Commission.
The company had not received any additional citations as of Wednesday evening, according to the president of the Pirates Harbour Tour company, Steve Vasaturo.
On Feb. 19, a couple boarded a Pirates Harbour Tour boat with a group of properly ticketed passengers, according to Vasaturo. The couple did not identify themselves as not having tickets or a wristband to the captain or crew of the boat.
"You don't just jump on a boat," Vasaturo said. People generally wait to be invited on board a boat, or ask permission to board, Vasaturo explained.
Had this occurred, the couple would have been asked to display their wristband or ticket, without which they would have been denied access to the boat, Vasaturo said.
After the boat had backed away from the dock, the couple told a crew member that they had no ticket or wristband, but that they really needed to get back to their ship and were "persistent" in trying to pay for a tour while on board. Against company policy, the crew member accepted payment on board and issued wristbands, Vasaturo said.
"This crew member was thinking he was doing them a favor," Vasaturo said. "This would never have happened if they had acted like every other tourist. They did what they knew would give them the best opportunity to make an honest company do something wrong."
According to a news release from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, "plain-clothes enforcement officers from the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission uncovered that persons were allowed to board the boats without prepaid tickets and as a result, paid cash for their tour. Once the cash was collected, each passenger was given a wristband as proof of payment."
Taxicab commission enforcement officers confronted the pirates at the next stop with a photocopy of the two $10 bills that the undercover officer and the assistant had given. Officials held the boat there for 20 minutes, with passengers on board, and wrote a citation for operating an illegal water taxi, according to Vasaturo.
Wheatley later clarified there was only one plain-clothed officer, assisted by an individual whom the she identified as a woman who lives on St. Thomas and works in the private sector.
"He should not have been able to get on the boat unless he had a ticket," Wheatley said. "They didn't have a wristband. Because there are other venues selling tickets, once you get to the boat if you don't have wristband, you have to present your ticket."
Pirates Harbour Tours is promoting itself as a taxi, according to Wheatley. She said that passengers aboard the trips are told that they won't have to wait in traffic.
Wheatley said her commission had received numerous complaints from taxi drivers who operate out of the concessions at Crown Bay and on the Waterfront.
Wheatley herself holds a taxi license and medallion, according to the DLCA website. Wheatley said Wednesday that she has "stepped back" from her ownership of Wheatley Taxi and turned operations over to her daughter.
"We've been observing him [Vasaturo] for some time to see if the complaints are authentic," Wheatley said. "We don't have a water-taxi issue with any other company."
Pirates Harbour Tours doesn't promote itself as a water taxi, the company's president says.
"None of my literature says I am a water taxi," Vasaturo said. "I can't control the way people relate to my tour."
Wheatley also contends that tickets for the Pirates Harbour Tours can be bought only on cruise ships, based on Vasaturo's concept pitch to government officials.
The licenses in the Taxi Commssion files are silent on the issue of ticket sales from retail outlets and do not note any restriction from being sold in places other than the cruise ships, but neither do they say that the tickets can be bought elsewhere.
The company's mission statement, included with the file, states: "In order to sell the tour to local individuals and hotels, Pirates Harbour Tour wishes to sell tickets at our present headquarters and possibly through other outlets such as hotel excursion desks, information booths, or existing retail outlets."
Fines were also assessed on a solicitor who acted
on behalf of the Pirates tour without the required business license, according to a Monday new release from the commission. Vasaturo said he does not know the "solicitor" mentioned in the commission's release.
The Pirates tour curtailed ticket-selling activities ashore until the charges against the company are clarified. Cruise-ship passengers can still buy tickets at the excursion desks on board cruise ships.
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