Rum, Sodomy & The Lash—Series Conspectus
An introduction to my life
Come along on a fun and informative journey featuring a historical unpacking of various tropes between “Hollywood” pirates vs. the historical and empirical facts, courtesy of a working tall ship sailor and pirate re-enactor. Along the way we’ll dig deeper into the origins of certain misconceptions, unpacking them with one whose calluses verify his tangible expertise.
Welcome to the first installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, a series looking at the fantasy and the reality of being a sailor in the modern age. My name is Jeromy Foberg, tall ship sailor, re-enactor, living historian (more on the differences between those two later), cosplayer, singer, and former Renaissance festival performer (yes, I wear many hats). Over the course of this series, I’d like to introduce you to the realities of working on a ship, both historical and modern, and dispel some of the common myths Hollywood and “Hollywood historians” have pushed on the public about the life of a sailor. Some odd circumstances and events led to the beginning of my career as a sailor. It was, and has continued to be, a wild and crazy ride that has led me down many paths, trails, and alleyways—some dark, some bright, some well-travelled, and some newly forged. This inaugural edition of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash will detail the series of occurrences that put me on the road to sailing on a tall ship.
It all started in 2002. I was living with my mother and her partner along with some other teenagers in a home in a rural Rhode Island town. The home itself was listed on the town’s Historical Society Registry, though my wife says “Hysterical Society” might be more appropriate.
My mother and her partner had been attending a local Renaissance festival [ 1 ]. This is where I came in. Mom suggested I apply to their program because she wanted me to experience the sense of camaraderie and joy that comes from performing with others in front of large groups of people. I had been going to the faire every year for the past three years and had met many people, all of whom had nothing but wonderful things to say about my mother. They all said the same thing: “You should join us and see what it is like to be part of this family!” In 2004, when I had moved out on my own, I decided to take them up on their offer—I went to the auditions in Providence. With the help of a friend, I had memorized a couple of period songs. I performed a monologue and sang both of the songs, and I must have done something right, as the entertainment director called me back not long after and offered me a part.
However, fate had other plans for me. I had recently accepted a job that conflicted with the schedule of the faire, so I had to decline the offer to work that season. I went back to my boring, existential routine of working retail jobs, resigned to the idea of not being able to gain entrance into the world of Ren faire performing.
The Winds of Change
The next year my situation changed, and I was in a position to re-apply. I went back, knowing a wider range of songs and a new monologue, deciding on the “Fuck You” monologue from 25th Hour. I figured that if I could pass myself off as a jaded racist living in New York City, I could convince them of my acting ability. I rocked the audition—wearing a kilt, no less—and I was on my way to becoming a performer.
I showed up for my first rehearsal on the last weekend in July 2005. What followed were four more weekends of character development, improvisational acting lessons, dialogue coaching, wardrobe, and singing. I entertained patrons standing in line to buy food tickets. I made the faire days magical for children and memorable for people of all ages. I ran along the security trap for three different jousts, encouraging people to cheer for their knights. I made people smile. I made them laugh. I performed in an unscripted stage show. I sang in two different pub sings per day for eight weekends, 18 days in total, and didn’t see a cent, though I did learn how to sing in front of crowds. In fact, I learned an incredible number of songs. Because of my involvement in the apprentice acting program, I amassed quite a collection of sea shanties and traditional folk songs, ranging from songs from the 15th century all the way to the 19th century.
I did this for two years. The only pay I received was complimentary tickets to give out to friends and family that were only good for certain dates throughout the season. I made so many friends and affected many lives, but eventually it was time to move on. I had given four months of my life to that faire, beginning and ending two relationships in the meantime. I was done… or so I thought.
The Next Step
Fast forward to 2007. I was living in an apartment in Providence with a few friends of mine from the faire. We had taken to calling the place Rennie Towers (apologies to John Cleese and Fawlty Towers). While living there, I received a call from a friend who told me that there was a position open in the faire’s Gaming Glen—one of the few places where Ren faire workers actually get paid for their work.
For those of you that have never been to a Renaissance faire, the admission price you pay to get into the faire goes to the management staff to pay for property, staff the site with workers (trash, maintenance, ticket sales and the like), and to pay for performers. None of the vendors on site see any of that money; neither do people lower on the totem pole, such as those in the apprentice acting program. The festival I worked at was notorious for high prices. In fact, patrons coming through the gates would complain on more than one occasion about the prices of everything—or that there were prices for the games and rides at all.
Meanwhile, I had been told that I had an opportunity to not just work the faire, but actually get paid for my time. I was sold, to say the least. I worked a game of skill where you loaded palm-sized wooden round shot (what we called cannonballs) into a large cannon. You then aimed the cannon at a painted backdrop of a pirate ship. Pulling a spring-loaded cord on the cannon released the cannonball. Players who landed one of their shots into one of the several pockets sewn into the backdrop would win a prize. My experience running the game gave me the opportunity to dress like a Hollywood pirate, shout obnoxiously at people, insult men, flirt with their wives and girlfriends, and delight their children. Everyone kept coming back for more. I had a blast—pun intended.
Back in the winter of 2007, I was contacted by an old co-worker, Casey. He and I had worked together at a cafe in Providence in the early 2000s. The reason he called me was to recruit me into the reenactment unit that he had founded 2 years previously. Casey had learned that I was very familiar with sea shanties and wanted me to teach them to the unit. He told me that normally, there are membership dues, but he would waive them in exchange for my knowledge and teaching.
Thus started my career as a pirate re-enactor. In the early days of my career, I was limited to wearing non-historically accurate clothing. (Mostly ren faire garb, which looks the part of a Hollywood pirate just fine.) Within a few years, I had purchased gear from other members of the crew and different websites that cater to historical re-enactors. I sang at local gigs, learned some maritime history, and got familiar with black powder weapons.
Then, in 2008, I became a true Rennie. How was I not considered a true Rennie prior to then? Well, if you work at one or two festivals in your immediate area, you’re considered a “weekender.” You do not become a true Rennie until you pack everything up and go on the road, working at festivals outside of your home state. For me, this meant traveling down to Florida.
And now to the moment that I became an honest-to-goodness sailor. In the early months of 2012, I got a call from Casey again. He had been working on a tall ship up in the northern coast of Massachusetts, singing sea shanties, educating passengers about pirates and firing flintlock weapons. The captain/owner of the vessel wanted another person to do exactly that. But I did not know this at first. The job that was offered to me involved the maintenance of the vessel while it was in dry dock. (Or has sailors say, up on the hard.) At the end of the maintenance, I must have done something right, because I was offered a position as a deckhand and became a member of the crew.
This is how I wound up working as a sailor and living the life we’ll be talking about in this series. Well, a modern recreation of that life at any rate, with all the sailing and none of the actual piracy. I’ve worked on a tall ship, on a commercial ferry, and my most recent gig has been working as a sailor and re-enactor on the 72-foot, brigantine-style ship Formidable, where I performed until summer 2019, before the ship was sold and brought down to the West Indies [ 2 ].
One thing that the past and the present have in common is how quickly life changes. Where my original employer was the owner of the ship, on Formidable I was employed in part by the ship and, in part, by the ship’s sponsors. Appropriately enough, this situation was not unlike sailors of the past—except I got paid. However, we’ll talk more about that in our next episode, where we discuss a lot more about pirates specifically.
As an aside, when I did my research for playing the roles I’ve played aboard ship, I found a few resources to be very helpful. Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly [ 3 ], Pirates: Predators of the Seas: An Illustrated History by Angus Konstam [ 4 ], and The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard [ 5 ] are three great resources for anyone who wants to learn about what life was really like for pirates.
As you can see from this brief snapshot of my life, the path that led me to the deck of the Formidable was a long, winding, and, above all, interesting one. It’s my hope to share that with you as we explore together [ 6 ].
- “The tall ship Formidable, upon which our author has served.”
Source: “Tall Ship Formidable.” Viator, www.viator.com/tours/Cartagena/Pirate-Sail-Boat-Tour-and-Booze-Cruise/d4498-176263P2
- Lipov, Felix. “Los Angeles – May 15, 2007: El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. El Capitan Theater Is Owned and Operated by the Walt Disney Company.” Shutterstock, www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/los-angeles-may-15-2007-el-342360755
Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.
- “Rhode Island Renaissance Faire.” RI Ren Fare, rirenfaire.com. Accessed 28 Mar. 2020.
- “Welcome Aboard the Tall Ship Formidable.” Pirate Ship Formidable, pirateshipformidable.com/Welcome_Aboard.html
- Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. Penguin Random House, 2006.
- Konstam, Angus, and Roger Michael Kean. Pirates: Predators of the Sea. Skyhorse, 2007.
- Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. Harcourt, 2008.
- Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.