While most people were finishing up their Fourth of July cookouts, Stephen Pelkey was on a steel barge in Nantucket Sound loaded with about 1,200 pounds of explosives. He had spent the better part of the last two weeks tracking the thunderstorms that were even at that moment hovering near the island and was pretty confident they wouldn’t interrupt the fireworks display he had been preparing for the last seven months. But the rain was still complicating things.
“We have to keep the powder dry, we have to keep everybody safe, we have so many safety regulations we have to conform to,” he said.
Earlier that day, the storms hit the tugboat taking him and his team to the island. They powered through, but it was just one more item in a long list of weather-related problems they faced. A show planned for Falmouth earlier in the day was delayed due to weather, and the Nantucket show was almost cancelled as well when fog threatened to roll in and settle on the island’s banks, but Pelkey decided to go ahead. His team felt the fog would stay offshore.
“You’re basically doing almost the same thing as a meteorologist where you have a couple of people on staff tracking storms and predicting weather patterns,” he said. “It was hit or miss on Nantucket, and the only reason we were really able to pull this show off tonight is that a lot of these storms were cutting right through the Sound and avoiding Nantucket.”
That gave him just enough of a window.
“I have learned to work really close with NOAA,” he said. “I felt comfortable that although it would be extremely challenging to pull off this show tonight, the conditions would be favorable.”
Even with the storms slicing through the Sound, Pelkey might have had to call the show off if not for the Falmouth delay, which allowed him to double the size of his crew. Usually, Pelkey runs the operation with a crew of four or five. This year, facing uncooperative weather, he bumped it up to nine. And still, it took about 10 hours for the team to get ready.
Starting at 9:00 p.m.,, Pelkey’s team fired around 2,100 explosive shells into the air over Nantucket Harbor. About 70 of them were over eight inches in diameter. Those, Pelkey said, are the big ones. The ones you remember. In the end, the show went off without a hitch and was as beautiful as everyone hoped. But the preparation?
“It wasn’t beautiful getting there,” Pelkey said.
The preparation started around seven months ago. The Coast Guard, Pelkey said, requires 120 days' notice for a permit, and that’s just the first step. Displays also require local permits, coordination with ferries, ramp schedules at local docks to load the dangerous explosives onto the barge for transport, hotel rooms for crew members in the area, insurance—the list, at times, seems endless. And if a show is delayed, as was the case in Falmouth, it gets even more complicated.
Sometimes, people don’t understand just how long the permitting can take and ask Pelkey to put on a Fourth of July show with only three or four weeks of advance notice. Of course, even if permitting wasn’t an issue, that would still be impossible; Pelkey and his team are booked for the entire Fourth of July weekend straight through 2026—the 250th anniversary of the United States, which, coincidentally, falls on a Saturday.
“Nantucket was smart,” he said. “They booked through 2026 to ensure they have a place.”
And besides, Pelkey doesn’t just need permission to put on a show; he also needs a show to put on. A good fireworks display is a piece of ephemeral art, like an explosive, temporary version of what you might see in a museum.
“It’s similar to what an artist would portray in an oil painting,” Pelkey said. “The night sky is our canvas, and we paint it the way we feel the scene should take place.”
In part, that means travelling the world to find the best explosive shells that give the brightest colours and the most striking effects. Pelkey has been everywhere from Spain to Japan in search of shells, and the work has paid off.
“Even tonight, we are using some amazing Spanish and Italian shells that are just truly spectacular,” he said. “That’s what I enjoy about this business.”
Blue, a Fourth of July staple, is a particularly hard color to produce.
“Oftentimes it looks more like a purple. To get that true rich royal blue is really, really tough,” Pelkey said.
Not only that, it’s dangerous. Mixing explosives is never safe, but the chemicals involved in creating blue fireworks are particularly tricky. “I’ve been trying to master that for almost 40 years,” he said.
Pelkey got into the industry entirely by accident. When he left the airforce, where he worked on missile guidance systems and munitions, his father-in-law asked him to help out at the family fireworks business, which at the time put on around 30 shows a year.
“I decided, well, yeah, I suppose I can do anything for a few months,” Pelkey said.
Once he started, he fell in love with the art.
“A lot of people assume it's because [I] have munitions training but [the two jobs] couldn’t be further apart,” he said.
Now, his business does around 800 shows a year, and Pelkey is the president of the American Pyrotechnics Association. Recently, Pelkey sold the company to Pyrotechnico, and he thinks this year may be his last one coordinating displays across New England. Four of his daughters help him run the company, but none of them wanted to take it over, and he’s ready for the next stage of his life.
That doesn’t mean he won’t come back to Nantucket. In fact, though his company has done many shows for the island, it’s when he isn’t working that he is actually able to step off the barge and set foot on Nantucket’s sandy shores. As a private pilot, he often enjoys day trips to the island with his wife, who also works in the business.
As a fireworks professional, he doesn’t leave the barge. His wife does, though. She has to walk the beaches and make sure no explosives wash up on shore.