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A pirate's life for him

Rob Ossian first was attracted to pirates at age 10 when he was given a set of classic literature including <i>Treasure Island.</i>

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Rob Ossian first was attracted to pirates at age 10 when he was given a set of classic literature including Treasure Island.

Some of us think we're pirates. Once or twice a year -- for Halloween or Gasparilla -- we don the puffy shirt and eye patch, swill some Jamaican rum and pretend to pillage the town in search of those coveted beads and a little escape from reality.

Then there's "The Pirate King" -- a 35-year-old nautical archaeologist from Austin, Texas, who has parlayed his lifelong fascination with the Jolly Roger into a full-time career.

Rob Ossian first was attracted to pirates at age 10. In 1994, he started a Web site -- -- that sets the facts straight on pirating history. These days, Ossian can be seen on TV in documentaries such as True Caribbean Pirates on The History Channel.

With the pirate menace once again massing near Tampa and an invasion imminent, we decided to plunder Ossian's expertise on pirating and the legend of Jose Gaspar.

Okay, pop quiz ... Who's the best movie pirate of all time -- Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp?

"Errol Flynn was the perfect pirate for his day -- handsome, articulate, and in full control of his world. Johnny Depp is really the polar opposite -- grimy, mischievous, and rarely has any idea what is going to happen from one moment to the next."

Come on, make a pick!

"It's an impossible choice! It's like trying to argue who was the best James Bond of all time. What I think would be really interesting is if technology ever improves to the point that a movie could be made co-starring the two of them."

Gasparilla is raging in Tampa again. Ever been?

"The first time I attended the Gasparilla Festival was back in 2003. I had just relocated to Tallahassee and my girlfriend, who had grown up in Florida, was shocked I had never heard of it.

"We road tripped down to Tampa, and the first thing that really struck me was the amazing turnout. We fought our way through the crowd to line up along Bayshore Boulevard, and I was just being amazed at the number of parade participants and floats. Sure, some were pretty cheesy, but to a pirate aficionado like me it was a piratical Mecca."

The festival is based on the real-life pirate Jose Gaspar. How close is the legend to the truth?

"Based upon what we know today it is very plausible that a man named Jose Gaspar did at one point raid smaller vessels along the Florida coastline in the late 18th and early 19th century. That being said, there is absolutely no evidence prior to the early 20th century to suggest that he ever buried any treasure on Gasparilla Island, died in a failed attack on a disguised frigate or anything else related to his legend.

"But here's the really interesting part: It doesn't matter. For more than 100 years the festival has been a tremendous community event. It's kind of how the spirit of Christmas has very little to do with reindeer."

Would a real pirate be happy that Gasparilla is run by an all-male group of wealthy Tampa businessmen?

"Nothing wrong with a pirate having a gold coin or two to rub together. Seriously, it was very unusual for a pirate to be wealthy, but that is not to say it never happened. Pirates like Peter Easton, Christopher Condent, and Cheng I Sao all retired with enormous fortunes.

"Generally speaking, however, pirate crews were notoriously bad at managing their money. Even after taking an enormous prize such as a treasure galleon, it would not be uncommon for all involved to be broke again within a year.

"Personally, in the humble opinion of The Pirate King, I think the city of Tampa is extraordinarily lucky to have a group like Ye Mystic Krewe willing to dedicate the kind of time, expense and dedication it takes to keep a 105-year old pirate tradition going strong."

A pirate's life for him 02/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 2:35pm]
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