Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? In Key West, nobody. And while Key West’s Wolf is certainly big, it’s only bad in the slang sense, where “bad” means seriously terrific.
That’s because Key West’s “wolf” is the 74-foot gaff-rigged topsail Schooner Wolf, a majestic tall ship that’s been headquartered in the island city for some 25 years.
The flagship of the Keys’ Conch Republic, the Wolf is patterned after the 19th-century blockade runners that once plied the waters of the Florida Straits. The classic schooner has appeared in several movies, stars in Key West’s annual Pirates in Paradise festival, and is renowned for its humanitarian relief sails to needy Caribbean and Bahamian island communities.
But the Wolf is most notable for something else entirely: its owner and skipper, Captain Finbar Gittelman.
The epitome of an old salt, Captain Finbar bears a slightly unnerving resemblance to the wicked Barbossa in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He has lived in Key West since the early 1970s and built his classic schooner in the early 1980s.
As admiral-in-chief of the Keys’ picturesque Conch Republic Navy, Finbar presides over the navy’s yearly sea battle with “federal invaders” — a highlight of the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration. (By a strange coincidence, the navy ALWAYS wins). He’s also a legendary pirate king who, with his lady Julie McEnroe (a.k.a. Blossom), oversees Key West’s rollicking Pirates in Paradise festival.
However, there’s more to the captain than the personas he assumes with devil-may-care enthusiasm. In 1980 Finbar survived a deadly Caribbean hurricane at sea, spending three harrowing days in a tiny life raft after the ship he was piloting sank in the storm.
He has since sailed the Wolf on several missions of mercy after hurricanes and other natural disasters, carrying cargoes of relief supplies to desperate people in stricken Caribbean regions.
On Feb. 20, the Wolf departed Key West’s Historic Seaport for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, carrying more than 10 tons of food, water, medicine, tools and other supplies donated by Florida Keys residents and businesses.
Finbar and Julie expect the crossing to Haiti to take between five and seven days. Their final destination is a remote coastal area not accessible to larger relief ships, where members of the local fishing fleet will paddle their dugout canoes out to meet the schooner.
Not only will the Wolf bring these people lifesaving supplies — it also carries the good wishes of hundreds of Keys residents, and a part of the island chain’s vital spirit.
“People keep asking me why we’re doing this, and my answer is simple,” said Finbar. “We’re islanders, and we need to take care of our fellow islanders.”
So raise a glass in salute to the Wolf, to Finbar and Julie and the rest of the Haiti-bound crew. May they find fair winds and smooth seas, and a safe journey home.
Editors Note: The Schooner Wolf is the Ambassador ship of the Waves of Change campaign since it helped launch the initial Waves of Change program on Ocean Day 2007. It recently has graciously donated its boat for sunset sails in the Bahamas and Jamaica begining December 2010 to help sponsor the Waves of Change Blue Community confrence Click Here for Details