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Yo ho ho

Tampa's pirate festival a rollicking good time

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Saturday January 27, 2001 6:45 PM
Updated: Saturday January 27, 2001 9:32 PM

  Daniel Aegerter Tampa native Daniel Aegerter swings down from the decks of the pirate ship Jose Gaspar, named for a legendary and possibily fictitious pirate. AP

By John Donovan,

ABOARD THE LE BARGE, in TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- I think it was somewhere around Ballast Point, pitching and yawing in the middle of hundreds of party boats, standing next to a group of men dressed like extras in an Errol Flynn movie, that I began to figure out what Gasparilla is all about.

Let me tell you. It's not all that easy to figure out.

Gasparilla is an annual celebration in Tampa named after the legendary (and perhaps fictitious) pirate Jose Gaspar. It is unlike any other festival in the nation. Tampa celebrates it this way:

Several thousand men and women dressed up like pirates gather their craft in the bay, then follow a boat manned by Ye Krewe of Gasparilla into downtown Tampa. They "invade" the shore near the Convention Center, take part in a 3 1/2 mile parade in front of hundreds of thousands of people and then hold a party that lasts well into the next morning.

It's the biggest outdoor festival of the year in Tampa. It's usually held in February, but this year organizers moved it up so it would coincide with Super Bowl weekend.

That's the official version.

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Unofficially, Tampa celebrates Gasparilla this way: Drinking and having fun. Throwing beads and having fun. Dressing up, drinking, throwing beads and having even more fun.

And, in the great spirit of modern urban parties like Mardi Gras, some women celebrate it with bared breasts. Lots of them. Tons of them. All sizes, all shapes. It's a veritable breast-abration.

"What women will do for beads," says a member of the Krewe of Sant'Yago, my friendly and fun-loving hosts on this cruise, when I ask him what's the most outrageous part of Gasparilla. "I could throw a dollar set of beads at them and the next day, if I tried to buy them back for $1,000, they'd say no."

Yes, during Gasparilla, beads are hard currency. Kids clamber for them out on boats on the bay and along the parade route downtown. Men fight over them. Women plead for them.

And, yes, with a minimum of prompting and a promise of cheap beads, many women pop their tops. It's a strange, strange thing to do in this day and age. But women -- and, let me reiterate, a lot of women -- do it. It's a fact.

It's all in fun, really. There was a time when Gasparilla was not so fun, when it faced intense criticism as a big old sexist party for rich white men. Now, blacks and whites and Latinos, many of them women, make up the 30 or so Krewes that invade downtown.

The Krewe of Sant'Yago, 300 strong and all male, has been around for nearly 30 years. Its members include some of the highest rollers in the city. It costs $600 a year to belong to the Krewe, but first you have to be sponsored by a Krewe member.

Most of the members have some sort of Latin tie, but there are exceptions. They are businessmen and doctors and lawyers. The current King of the Krewe of Sant'Yago is Casey Gonzmart, owner of perhaps the most famous restaurant in town, the Columbia Restaurant.

Under the King there are barons and knights and squires. The Krewe holds debutante balls, black-tie parties, sponsors its own parade in Ybor City in February (when some 250,000 are expected to attend). It sponsors two scholarships at the University of South Florida. The members of the Krewe of Sant'Yago are big in the community.

But -- this can't be understated -- these guys like to have fun, too. And, boy, are they good at it. You can tell that by their costumes alone.

Boots, puffy sleeves, silver and gold piping, elaborate strands of beads, rich velvets of burgundy and purple and green, hats, crowns ... it's quite a sight. Randy Conte, who organized the Krewe's Gasparilla outing, has a costume worth, he says, $4,800. It's Florida State burgundy, with a beaded embroidery of Renegade and Chief Osceola, the horse and rider that serve as the school's mascots.

It takes some money and dedication to be a member of the Krewe of Sant'Yago. And a good dose of self-deprecation, in those outfits, is helpful.

"We look for members who are willing to dress up in tights," says Dan Stenglein, a bearded and balding 47 year old who owns an architectural material company in Tampa. "I weigh like 300 pounds. I had to have mine specially made."

Yes, tights are in fashion here on Le Barge. Pretty much everyone is in tights. Robin Hood would be proud of this merry band.

In the interest of semi-disclosure, though, not eveyone is in tights. The men of the Krewe of Sant'Yago had some non-Krewe members onboard. Non-members who weren't men.

They didn't wear tights.

But, in the interest of semi-survival, the story stops there. I don't want the good men of the Krewe hacked off at me.

Let's just say that Tampa's famed "6-foot rule" was not being enforced on this particular boat.

The point is, everybody was having a blast. On the literally hundreds of boats out in the flotilla in Tampa Bay on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, everyone was thrilled. Beads were flying, kids were smiling, the high-profile marine police were laughing. Hundreds of thousands of bead-starved landlubbers who lined the channel back to the docking site were into the whole Gasparilla spirit, too.

Up on the front of Le Barge, as the armada churned its way back toward the gleaming skyline, the sun shone, salsa music blared, the beer flowed and breasts were freed on boats of all sizes, I sidled up to an older Krewe member.

I asked him about the Super Bowl on Sunday. If anyone onboard even knew or cared about it.

"Sure," he said, puffing on a cigar. "But that's tomorrow. Today is for this."

He pointed to the bay. The boats. The people. The fun.

That's what Gasparilla is all about.

Super Bowl Scene appears every day through Sunday's Super Bowl.

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