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Spring breakers shatter calm at Clearwater, other Tampa Bay beaches

CLEARWATER BEACH

Cabana boys found them face down on the beach, sprawled out and vomiting near the Hilton tiki bar.

Nicole was from New York, 21 in a black bikini. Allison was from Orlando, 23 in a teal sundress. They argued they were good, didn't need any help, their faces still caked with sand.

It was their first day in town for spring break.

"Day one. We're drunk and passed out in the sand," said Clearwater police Sgt. Robert Kinchen, patrolling the beach one afternoon last week. "Having a good time, aren't we?"

Clogger of bridges, burner of skin, the annual bacchanalia of spring break is back. Smell the sunscreen. Taste the smoothie. See glorious youth set loose upon the beach.

Like bare feet to hot asphalt, the inrush of "breakers" for locals can be jarring, smashing to pieces the cool calm of the winter. Though no Cancun, the beaches of Clearwater and Tampa Bay number among the more popular spots for vacationing students to shed clothes and inhibitions.

Business owners herald the break as the start of the fertile summer — lucrative, steady and lasting for months. This year, they said, looks even better than last, with warmer weather and bigger crowds arriving sooner than expected.

"Since the first week or two, it's been just gangbusters," said Alan Ebbert, the operations manager for Frenchy's, a four-eatery empire on Clearwater Beach. Managers there have doubled up on cups, beer and booze; the onslaught has burned through rivers of rum runners and 15 gallons a day of she-crab soup. Ebbert predicted revenue, helped by the early heat, had risen 15 to 20 percent over last year.

Ebbert carried with him a stack of schedules from every university in the country, coupled with attendance numbers and spring break dates.

"We're information freaks," he said. "This is our busiest time of the year."

Through the magic of staggered scheduling, the local break now lasts five weeks. The universities of Tampa, Florida and Central Florida began break on March 7. Public schools in Pinellas begin March 28, and schools in Hillsborough begin April 25.

Already the crowds have hit hard. On Clearwater Beach, where eight lifeguards work on full patrol, dense crowds filled from the coastline to the volleyball courts at the back of the beach. On the first Saturday of the month, Kinchen said, traffic was backed up from the beach to Clearwater Mall, 7 miles away.

Many students in board shorts and big sunglasses traveled from out of state, opting not to visit busier beaches in Miami or Panama City. At Caddy's on the Beach, in Treasure Island, manager Robbie Maher said many of the bar's patrons, numbering 4,000 on a spring break Saturday, were northerners from Boston or Canada. And at the Beach Bazaar, a tourist tchotchke shop near Pier 60, owner Pat Schlesman said crowds of college students from Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania had cleared out shot glasses and sunglasses.

"Almost everybody comes from out of town," she said.

There's more to the break than drinking, of course, though the stories of tragedy are impossible to ignore.

On March 13, University of Florida freshman Molly Ammon was found dead after a night of drinking on Madeira Beach. That same morning, a Georgia Southern University student died after a party with his fraternity brothers in Destin. Early Thursday, an Auburn University student staying at a Key West resort fell to her death down a flight of stairs.

As for Nicole and Allison, the Clearwater Beach breakers found in a stupor? Paramedics, police and hotel security helped get them cleaned up. Allison went back to her room to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Nicole, who couldn't keep down orange juice, was driven by paramedics to Morton Plant Hospital, just in case.

"Spring break '11, yeah!" said Brad Golomb, a Clearwater firefighter and one of 10 rescuers to respond. "I love it. So fun. Just the tip of the iceberg."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Spring breakers shatter calm at Clearwater, other Tampa Bay beaches 03/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 10:20pm]
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