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With pirates in charge, Gasparilla party takes off

TAMPA — With cannons booming and smoke billowing over the bay, the pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla set their sights on the city.

A flotilla of boats met their pirate ship. A stunt plane flew overhead.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn vowed to fight them off — "send reinforcements," he implored on Twitter — but it was for naught.

The pirate ship Jose Gasparilla boomed across Hillsborough Bay and came onshore at the Tampa Convention Center to conquer the city.

After the invasion, the wannabee pirates boarded charter buses to head for the parade.

The streets of South Tampa and downtown filled up quickly Saturday morning with people in pirate regalia as the annual Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest unfolded.

Pirate Fest events ran all day, including a street festival featuring live entertainment and food that went until 10 p.m. along Ashley Drive in downtown.

This was the first Gasparilla since the bombing at last year's Boston Marathon, so security was tighter than usual. Police with dogs did a pre-event bomb sweep and surveillance cameras focused on the crowd throughout the parade route from Bayshore Boulevard to downtown.

Tampa police reported just 42 arrests and 63 open-container citations, according to preliminary figures. All but three of the arrests were misdemeanors, including seven people charged with boating under the influence. Police reported 12 arrests for underage drinking.

That's improved from 2013 totals, when police arrested 68 people and wrote 131 alcohol citations. And compared to 2011 when 349 arrests were made, this year was downright sedate.

• • •

A Sarasota man pulled a wooden pirate ship wagon up Channelside Drive, with seven children aboard, in hopes of getting closer to the full-size ship.

Four of the kids belonged to Shane Burggraff, 33, including one celebrating a birthday. It took five hours to build the wooden vessel on wheels.

"We just spent two nights on it,' he said.

• • •

Errol McIntosh, 35 from Boston, says he spends three months of the year in Tampa, but this is his first Gasparilla parade.

He was wasting no time.

As women passed him on Bayshore Boulevard, he offered beads and a perhaps hopeful chant: "Hey, hey, hey ladies — want to trade?"

"You can't do this in any other city," he said. "It's the daytime version of Mardi Gras, but much better."

• • •

More than an hour before the parade even began, a woman was seen passed out near a portable toilet on Bayshore. Authorities carried her on a golf cart to an area where ill people were being treated and waited for her to come to.

• • •

The bacchanal was too much of an opportunity to pass up for many street preachers — or, as Evan Johnston, 51 of Tampa, prefers to be called, "urban missionary."

From his would-be pulpit by Bayshore, he held a sign warning paradegoers that they cannot see the kingdom of God unless they are saved. He played Gospel music on a radio.

People posed with him for selfies. Some shouted "Amen!"

"We have guilt and condemnation on our conscience," he said. He said he preaches so the people know that God loves them.

On Channelside Drive, another street preacher held a sign decrying "sex before marriage" and "potheads and oxyheads."

His audience was not receptive. "Hail Satan," a passerby shouted. "Jesus drank wine, by the way," another said.

The preacher, who identified himself only as Victor the Baptist, 52, of New Port Richey, was undeterred.

"Some are glad to see me here," he said. "Obviously some are not. Most are not."

• • •

University of Tampa student Alec Sun, 22, is from China and said there's nothing like this back home. This was his second year at Gasparilla.

"It's warm and the girls are sexy," he said.

• • •

Brad and Monica Culpepper rode their bikes into the maw of Gasparilla to check on their three kids, who were each at different Gasparilla events.

The former NFL player and his wife appeared last season on Survivor. Brad was eliminated from the game early on, but Monica made it into the final three and won a $100,000 second-place prize.

Saturday, they said their favorite Gasparilla memory was when Tony Dungy was named coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. The Culpeppers invited him and his wife, Lauren, to their first Gasparilla.

"Next thing you know, we have Tony and Lauren Dungy and they had beads everywhere," Monica Culpepper said.

• • •

Amid a crowd of spectators, Courtney Durden, 23 of Lakeland, danced while carrying a plastic sword. From time to time, she tapped passersby on the head with it.

"None shall pass unless you dance," she said. "That's what pirates say, I think."

• • •

The parade served as a backdrop for a bachelorette party.

Elizabeth "Buffy" Stephany, 29, is from Memphis, but went to Florida Southern College in Lakeland and has friends in the area. About five of them were with her Saturday. One held a sign saying "Buffy's Bachelorette" and the bride-to-be was wearing a veil and replete with beads, thick on her neck.

She marries Rocky Escajadillo, 26, on Feb, 15.

"We got in yesterday and we've been having a great time since," she said.

Spending time with friends, she said, was her favorite part of Gasparilla.

• • •

This was the first parade for Abner Vaggins, a 2-year-old basset hound.

His owner, Jaclyn Crogan, 25 of Tampa, dressed him in beads and pirate gear for the occasion. Spectators asked to have their pictures taken with him.

"He's the most photogenic dog here," Crogan said. "Strangers are coming up to us and wanting to talk."

• • •

A group of friends made sure they'd be able to remember the day no matter what. They made one of them wear a camera on his head to record the whole thing.

That measure seemed to be foresight. One of the group, Johnson Wales, 23 of Tampa, said he had started the day with bacon, eggs and a shot of Crown Royal.

• • •

Their home was the scene of Gasparilla parties for the military brass in the past, but Jill and Scott Kelley were not at their Bayshore Boulevard mansion. Before this year's parade, Jill Kelley offered her home as a sanctuary for reporters who needed a respite from the Gasparilla craziness — or just the restroom. A reporter passing by the house Saturday afternoon didn't see evidence of any takers. Three security officers were on the grounds. A pirate flag was hung, and a skeleton wearing a pirate uniform was on the porch.

Jill Kelley unwittingly touched off the scandal that led to the downfall of Gen. David Petraeus, who was CIA director at the time, but had spent his first Gasparilla at the Kelley home while he was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. Kelley has since filed a lawsuit against the government, asserting it violated her privacy by leaking her name as the person who received anonymous emails that turned out to be from Petraeus' paramour.

• • •

Chris Harris, 41 of Tampa, spent much of the day drumming on a series of yellow buckets near the Tampa Convention Center.

He says he is a full-time bucket drummer who has been performing for 17 or 18 years at Gasparilla as well as other festivals in the Southeast, including the St. Patrick's Day festival in Savannah, Ga.

"New Orleans has Mardi Gras and Savannah has St. Patrick's Day," he said. "But Tampa created its own festival unique to itself."

• • •

Underage drinking and open alcohol containers in undesignated areas have led to most arrests in the past. On Saturday morning, Tampa police posted this warning on Facebook:

"Our goal is to make Gasparilla safe and fun with no arrests. We want people to leave with a neck full of beads vs. a pair of handcuffs. Adults with open containers of alcohol in unauthorized areas will receive a citation:

$75 for first offense

$150 for second offense

$300 third offense

$450 for fourth offense

The message is simple – you can only consume alcohol in authorized areas along the parade route and this will be strictly enforced.

People just need to remember to follow a few simple rules … the alcohol zones are on the parade route. No drinking in the neighborhoods, on the way to the parade and ABSOLUTELY NO UNDERAGE DRINKING."

Times correspondents Divya Kumar and Ashley Reams contributed to this report.

With pirates in charge, Gasparilla party takes off 01/25/14 [Last modified: Sunday, January 26, 2014 1:18am]
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