Officials, Krewe members react to first-ever cancellation of Bowlegs Festival

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH —This summer, there will be no invasion by Capt. Billy and his Krewe, and no skirmish between them and the mayor at the Landing.

Nor will scores of people dressed as pirates party, watch fireworks or parade in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

For the first time in its long history of mischievous fun, the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival has been canceled.

This year’s celebration, which would have been the 65th annual festival, is yet another victim of the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce officials, who spearhead the popular fest, officially announced the cancellation Wednesday.

In May, the pandemic led officials to reschedule the event from the traditional first weekend in June to July 31 and Aug. 1, with the Torchlight Parade on Aug. 3.

Because of a recent surge in coronavirus cases, however, chamber officials decided to cancel this year’s festival.

“Overall, we didn’t feel it was a good decision to encourage people to come out and celebrate at a festival and have thousands line up at a parade,” Rachelle Graves, the chamber’s director of special events, said Wednesday. “It most certainly would have been difficult to socially distance. As much as we love the festival, we knew if they canceled the Olympics, we should look at keeping our community, friends and families out of harm’s way.”

Graves also noted the pandemic’s harm to local businesses that traditionally help sponsor the Bowlegs Fest.

“Festivals and parades of this size are put on through the generosity of local businesses,” she said. “It’s a difficult time for businesses to make significant investments in festivals and other major events when they’re having difficulty making payroll” and paying other expenses.

In 1968, the chamber took over the organization of the festival from the Jaycees, and the fest was changed from an end-of-summer celebration on Labor Day to a summer kickoff on the first full weekend in June.

The closest a prior Bowlegs Festival came to being canceled was in 2010. That celebration had to be postponed until later that year because of the harm caused to local beaches and the economy after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

Because of the pandemic, numerous out-of-town guests had expressed concerns about going forward with a festival this year, said Matt Turpin, president of the Krewe of Bowlegs Foundation, the historical arm of the Krewe of Bowlegs.

“It was not the funnest decision, but it was a decision made out of caution and respect for our community,” he said. “We are all sad that we had to do it.”

Turpin is the branch project manager of the Bank of England Mortgage in Fort Walton Beach and immediate past chair of the chamber’s board of directors. He became a member of the Krewe of Bowlegs in 2012.

Next year’s festival is tentatively planned to take place in early May, Turpin said. He said FWB native Buddy Carter, the current captain of the Krewe of Bowlegs, will remain captain for the 2021 celebration.