Shivering the timbers
Old stories of pirates and their characteristic qualities of thievery and excess may be fiction, but in Tampa, Fla., Blackbeard-style pirates actually exist. Each January, the city, located in Western Florida, is invaded and captured by an entertaining spectacle of residents and visitors dressed up as boisterous pirates, complete with boats, firing pistols and cannons. The gathering, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, honors legendary pirate Jose “Gasparilla” Gaspar, and transforms the city for a week-long celebration of activities, parades and buccaneers.
The event begins every year when the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship sails through Hillsborough Bay toward the city, re-creating Jose Gaspar’s invasion of Tampa when he terrorized the state’s West Coast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In a staged attempt to protect the city, hundreds of additional boats, occupied by festival-goers, converge to guard the coastal town. Then, the boats instead join the band of pirates as they sail through Seddon Channel, which leads to downtown Tampa. “It’s a phenomenal sight,” says Jim Tarbet, executive director of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the festival organizer. “Depending on the weather, we can see anything from 500 to 800 boats. It’s kind of like organized chaos out there.”
Once the massive flotilla reaches the city, the pirate ship — a 53-year-old, 18th century-style barge that measures 165 feet long and has three 100-foot-tall steel masts — docks at the city’s convention center, where the mayor awaits their arrival in a final attempt to defend the city. Soon after, the mayor is forced to hand over the key to the city, signaling the beginning of the festival.
After the invasion, the pirates take to the streets to parade along a 3.5-mile-long route on Bayshore Boulevard, the city’s trademark thoroughfare that runs along the bay. This year, nearly 400,000 spectators, many of whom dressed in pirate costumes, lined the parade’s route. Two thousand people participated in the 2007 parade, which included 70 high school bands, floats, and local, state and federal officials. Following the parade, the celebration continues into the night with a street festival.
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is hailed as the third largest single event in the country (following only the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the Rose Bowl) and dates back to 1904. Soon after the festival’s beginnings, the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla was formed and has since planned the annual invasion of Tampa. Currently, the organization has 800 members, many of which sail aboard the main pirate ship. The “Krewe” hosts the event through an agreement with the city.
With public safety and emergency response major concerns, Gasparilla organizers carefully prepare for any incident that may arise from the roving pirates. Law enforcement officials have a large presence at the festival, including patrol units and Coast Guard crews on the water during the invasion and parade. “Just about every Tampa Police Department officer is on duty that day. We also draw support from the sheriff’s office and the Florida Highway Patrol,” Tarbet says. “There is a law enforcement officer about every 10 feet along the whole length of the parade.”
While some events can be anticipated, others are beyond prediction. “You always have to be ready for a dynamic like that [during] a huge event like this,” Tarbet says. “It’s more about the unknown that you have to deal with.”
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is an annual testament to the successful collaboration between both local government and businesses. “[Mayor Iorio] is phenomenally supportive, and all of the mayors before her have been, [as well as] the city,” Tarbet says. “Without the city, this event couldn’t run.