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The Seven-Headed Dragon is a blast for pirates

TAMPA

Each year, the pirates who fire the 22 cannons aboard the Jose Gasparilla try to make the invasion a little noisier. • They compete in an informal challenge to see who can fire the most shots during the voyage from Ballast Point to the invasion site at the Tampa Convention Center. • J. Scott Taylor, the original cannon master of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, claims the record: 700 black powder blasts from his small-but-mighty signal cannon during the 90-minute voyage that starts the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. • "It's a righteous count,'' he insists with a sly grin.

Taylor, 65, doesn't waste time using a lanyard to trigger the cannon. He uses his hand, and he has scars caused by little blowbacks from the breech.

"I spend most of the springtime with my pocketknife, picking out unburned powder from the web of my hand," he said.

A Tampa lawyer in his other life, Taylor founded the Gunners' Guild in 1988 and served for 12 years as cannon master. Krewemate Bill Curtis held the job for the next dozen years. Now, the duty has passed on to C. Vance Smith, a third-generation cannoneer.

Smith said he's flattered to be asked to fill the position, but noted that he would be learning his duties on the job.

"It's very informal,'' said Taylor. "His hardest duty is to assign floats — who gets to shoot on what float during the parade.''

Smith, whose real-life duty is director of Florida operations for the New York Yankees, said he doesn't keep score during the voyage from Ballast Point.

"I know better than to compete with gunner Taylor,'' he said.

The holder of the winning "righteous count'' is recognized with the Israel Hands Award, named for the gunner who was shot in the knee by the pirate Blackbeard as a demonstration to keep the crew in line. (He's also a fictional character in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.) The winning pirate gets a plaque and a red scarf to wear around his right knee.

The Seven-headed Dragon isn't part of the competition. It's a seven-barrel cannon that was built in the factory of Mack Trucks Inc., hence its golden Mack bulldog emblem. Swen Hansen, the former CEO of Mack, had it built, Taylor said. Hansen was a good friend of the late D.R. Hall, the Tampa Mack truck dealer. The two liked to fire signal cannons on the Fourth of July and other occasions and felt they needed something that could speed up the 21-gun salutes.

The city's ersatz pirates have been firing cannons for most of the festival's 109-year history. But the cannoneers were never very organized, Taylor said, so the Gunners' Guild was formed. Each member buys his own cannon, which sell for about $700 each, and 10-gauge blank shotgun shells for $1 each.

As part of its duties, the guild makes sure that each new Krewe member who fires blanks from his revolver during the parade takes a gun safety awareness course. And the only pistols allowed are five- or six-shot, .38 Specials.

The biggest blaster of all, of course, is the Dragon. When all seven barrels fire at once, the table supporting the cannon jumps in the air from the recoil, Taylor said.

For the consummate cannoneer, that's what it's all about.

"Smoke and noise and concussion — it's not for everybody, but for those of us that like it, it's exciting,'' Taylor said. "And more smoke, more noise, more rounds is better.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

The Seven-Headed Dragon is a blast for pirates 01/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 4:57pm]
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