Former British Royal Navy member mans the tiller at Gasparilla

Executive director Jim Tarbet works full time, year-round to pull off the $1.3 million spectacle.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Executive director Jim Tarbet works full time, year-round to pull off the $1.3 million spectacle.

TAMPA — Describing Jim Tarbet as "seaworthy," "steady rudder" and "anchored" makes him wince a bit. But the nautical cliches stick to the executive director of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla like barnacles to a Bayshore seawall. Tarbet draws on a 25-year career in the British Royal Navy — Prince Charles was a classmate at the naval academy —to pull off Saturday's land and sea invasion.

"It's nothing compared to being operations officer on a destroyer in the Falklands," Tarbet says, not exactly joking.

Tarbet's job is to anticipate anything that could go wrong when businessmen-pirates cruise to Harbour Island, accompanied by a "mosquito fleet" of 500 private boaters. When 100 floats, bands and dignitaries line up for a 3-mile parade. When 40,000 participants and 500,000 viewers converge on city streets for the annual free-for-all.

His worst nightmare? Bad weather. Last year a nasty storm caused the cancellation of the Gasparilla Children's Parade 30 minutes before it was to start.

Top priority? Enforcing good behavior among his own 800 merry members. (Note Rule No. 10 of the official Gasparilla Code of Conduct: Do not mingle with bands, harass other parade units or molest any participant in the parade.)

"Jim accomplishes this," said former krewe captain Preston Farrior, "with a Type A personality and laid-back management style."

"He's consistent, focused, but the kind of guy you want to sit down with and have a Jack and cigar," Farrior said.

The retired naval commander works full time year-round on the logistics of the $1.3 million event sponsored by the private men's club. An endless "to do" list includes meeting with city, law enforcement and maritime agencies; maintaining 11 floats and the 55-year-old Jose Gasparilla pirate ship barge; contracting Event Fest to market Gasparilla PirateFest and manage the children's parade; and planning the annual scholarship golf tournament.

"This office works by checklists and timelines," said Tarbet, 59, at his tidy desk in a 41,000-square-foot warehouse the krewe purchased last year on Cass Street near N Boulevard. Consolidating the staff, supplies and floats under one roof made life easier for his crew, which includes an administrative assistant and office and warehouse managers.

And while the club's hierarchy of royal pretenders play at being king and queen, Tarbet knows true royalty. He was Prince Charles' aide-de-camp from 1970 to '72, and they still correspond.

"I looked after his schedule at the academy and coordinated with Buckingham Palace,'' said Tarbet, who remembers Camilla Parker Bowles, now the prince's wife, at an academy ball "long before he met Diana."

Tarbet grew up in Edinborough, Scotland, traveled the world, "but fell in love with the States." While stationed in Washington, D.C., he arranged several British navy warship visits to Tampa and Queen Elizabeth's arrival on the HMS Britannia.

"I got to know the Harbour Island developers who offered me a job," said Tarbet. He returned to London for a final tour of duty before becoming vice president of operations for Beneficial Finance in 1992. His five years at Beneficial did not overlap with his predecessor at the krewe, the late Chuck Smith, who also worked there.

"Just a coincidence,'' Tarbet said.

He and Smith ran Gasparilla 2000 together, then he took the reins alone for the Super Bowl parade in 2001. "I just love Gasparilla,'' Tarbet said. "I love the dynamics, the challenges, of the major events we do. There's something new every day."

Discretion and respect for tradition, not to mention years in naval intelligence, help Tarbet arrange formal rituals, such as the Coronation Ball and the Debutante Ball. Who sits where and with whom is determined by seniority, often requiring his diplomatic skills.

"I'd call him gracefully effective,'' said krewe captain Jim Robbins, the CEO of the 105-year-old club, which boasts four generations of members. "He's got the right protocol for the right moment."

Come March, Tarbet will take a deep breath and critique February's festivities. Faster than he could say Jose Gaspar, the work begins all over again.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

Fast facts

James Tarbet

Age: 59

Job: Executive director, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla since May 1999

Born: Salisbury, Rhodesia, now Harare, Zimbabwe, where his father led exotic safaris.

Family: single; daughter, 11

Home: Wesley Chapel

U.S. citizenship: 2003

Former British Royal Navy member mans the tiller at Gasparilla 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 3:13pm]

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