The Happy Pirate has seen it all, riding atop a Gasparilla float for more than 30 years. Now the 10-foot-tall fiberglass fellow has a spiffy new perch on Ye Mystic Krewe's newest float.
The Happy Pirate will carry the krewe's "most senior men," right behind the royal float carrying the king and queen and the royal court, a most prominent position in Saturday's parade, says krewe captain Jim Robbins.
The $22,000 ride (not including labor) made its debut last weekend in the Gasparilla Children's Extravaganza.
Although the old Happy Pirate float had been a mainstay in the popular Parade of Pirates, safety and configuration issues had kept it garaged during recent children's parades, Robbins said. Under pressure by members for more float capacity, he ordered a replacement built "at warp speed."
Robbins' charge turned construction into a family affair, much like membership in the multigeneration men's club. In August, warehouse foreman Hewett Rivers, and sons Chris and Tim switched into high gear.
None of them had ever built a float from scratch. There were no blueprints. Only Tim's sketches, which they routinely ignored.
"Chris changes it no matter what you say," said Tim, "and then you start over at step one."
"Let's just say things were subject to change," said Chris. "There were good days and head-buttin' days."
Their friendly arguments remind them of a popular reality show.
"We're exactly the same situation as American Choppers," said Chris. On The Learning Channel's series, a mechanic and his sons create custom motorcycles in their workshop. Flare-ups fuel the show as they work together to meet deadlines.
"I'd say it was more like (the Discovery Channel's) Deadliest Catch," teases Tim, "with all the times someone wanted to throw someone off the float."
Hewett Rivers, 58, was an Air Force mechanic at MacDill Air Force Base when he began float maintenance for the krewe in 1988. Since retiring from the military in April 1992, he works full time maintaining their 11 floats and overseeing the warehouse year-round. He also helps other krewes with their floats.
Chris, 33, an auto and marine mechanic, came to help him in 1993, going full time in 2005. Tim, 29, an artist with carpentry skills, works mainly during Gasparilla "season."
Designing and building the Happy Pirate became a learning experience for all of them, said Hewitt, who says he learned almost as much as he taught.
"He's old-school," said Chris.
The chassis is a 45-foot hay trailer reinforced by welded steel to hold 70 adults or 100 children, double the capacity of the old float. The three-tiered beaut is motorless, towed by a pickup truck, as are all the floats.
Designs addressed safety concerns, including a wider entrance to make it easier for pirates to pop on and off.
Bench seats line the sides of the first level. Safety handles were installed throughout. An open tower on the third tier holds a restroom.
As for the Happy Pirate himself? He got a total facelift — sanded, polished and painted to look like new.
Lastly, five posters were hung on each side of the float. Pirate Rick Chambers commissioned Gasparilla logos of the past 10 years, then reproduced the original artwork vinyl. Each design is framed and bolted to thick sheets of plastic.
The result: a Happy Pirate built by a happy Rivers crew.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332.