FLORENCE — In the middle of the Last Chance campsite at Country Thunder, right across the from a tent full of nurses and just two spots over from the Bad Decisions Crew headquarters is, of all things, a pirate ship.
It has the requisite skeleton hanging from the netting, a big Halloween skull mounted to the bow, a Jolly Roger flag flying high above the stern and a welcome sign for anyone who passes by to come on board.
On Friday afternoon, a group of about a dozen country music fans towing wagons with little kids in tow posed for pictures as the Camp Scallywags Captain Christian Zeitler recounted for the adults the story of how he and a couple buddies decided four years ago that a pirate ship was a perfect fit for a country music festival in the middle of the desert.
"We've told this story so many times," he said, sitting with his partner in piracy Richard Reeves on the back of an ATV parked behind the Scallywag.
This is the fourth year that Camp Scallywags — the name Zeitler, Reeves and their third partner, Sean Franklin, 41, gave themselves — has pulled the ship into the Country Thunder Last Chance campgrounds. The ship and the trio have become one of the festival's biggest tourist draws. Local TV crews bring their cameras and shoot video of people climbing the wooden ladder onto the ship and bellying up to the bar for a complementary rum drink or beer. They take tips and you can bring your own cocktail if you choose, but no one of age is turned away from the experience of boarding the Scallywag.
Zeitler, the 34-year-old self-appointed captain, said the idea of the pirate ship was inspired by Treasure Island, the Vegas casino that features a giant pirate ship that fires off faux canons on the Las Vegas strip.
He and Franklin started the project, scouring their East Valley neighborhoods on bulk pickup days. They picked up scrap wood and anything they felt they could repurpose for the project. Moulding on the bow came from an ornate picture frame. They got the giant skull on clearance from a big box store after Halloween and they built the bar, benches and the bulk of the ship from the remnants of everything from a door, bed frames and other reclaimed materials.
Reaves, the 32-year-old pool repairman who joined Zeitler and Franklin a year into their pirate adventures, is the self-appointed guru of safety when it comes to the annual ship building. Each January, the trio docks the ship in Zeitler's backyard and spends their weekends making improvements to ready the party vessel for the April festival. Reaves is responsible for the ship's metal works. Zeitler said he can attest to his friend's welding skills which he puts into action each winter to maintain the ship's dock-worthiness.
Reaves estimates they spend $3,000 between them for festival passes and their campsites. That doesn't include the cost of rum and beer.
And the visitors by weekend's end will reach into the thousands. Outside the ship is a chalkboard — Zeitler, who works for Maricopa County equipping police cars with lights, sirens and the requisite insignia — calls it the guest book. Visitors scribble their names or notes to the crew in chalk.
By Friday afternoon there was virtually no place left to scribble, a testament to the ship's popularity.
This year, the Scallywag became the head of a fleet; its neighbor across the way docked his ship, Drunken Promises, in front of his RV.
Actually, Drunken Promises — so named because its creator made a drunk promise at last year's festival that he was going to build his own pirate ship — is more like a tug boat. It sits on the ground and it's just big enough for a couple little kids.
Zeitler said he kicked in sail — just a swath of cloth really — and a "canon" — a couple wide-mouthed black pipes — to help with the effort.
"Now I'm a commodore," he said.
Throughout the festival, one of the three Scallywags will be on board at all times. They usually call it a night around 2 a.m.; on the first day of this year's festival the last guest left at 3:45.
"After four or five hours of telling our story, you're exhausted," he said.
The trio also takes turns going to concerts so that the ship is never left unattended and the questions unanswered.