Forecasts grow foreboding for Gasparilla pirate fest

TAMPA — Pirates brave rough seas and scurvy, so are they ready for what Mother Nature has in store Saturday?

Forecasters say rain and thunderstorms will move into the Tampa area early Saturday and last through mid- to late evening. If lightning or heavy winds threaten, the parade could be canceled because of weather for the first time in its history.

The Gasparilla invasion, featuring a fully rigged pirate ship and scores of boats forming a flotilla at the south end of Hillsborough Bay, starts at 11:30 a.m. A decision on whether the event goes forward could be made this afternoon.

The Parade of the Pirates, which draws hundreds of thousands of revelers to Bayshore Boulevard and downtown, runs from 2 to 5:30 p.m.

If the forecasts hold true, Jose Gaspar and his party pirates can expect a very wet parade that has little to do with the booze.

"You can't rain on my parade!" said Jim Tarbet, executive officer of parade organizer Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. "The intent is that the event goes on."

As far as Tarbet knows, weather has never stopped the 106-year-old Gasparilla parade.

On Thursday, Ye Mystic Krewe leaders, as well as Tampa police and the Coast Guard, continued to monitor forecasts.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration representative was part of a parade meeting Wednesday where weather and safety were discussed.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Mariana O'Leary said Thursday no delays or cancellations are planned.

Another conference call with the Coast Guard is scheduled for this afternoon, when a decision could be made on the Gasparilla Invasion, Tarbet said.

As for the main parade, organizers, weather and safety personnel remain in contact by e-mail.

"We have contingency plans in place," Tarbet said without giving details.

It's unlikely that the parade can be moved to another date because of the logistics involved. Tampa requires all of its police officers to work on Gasparilla day, and scheduling another all-hands-on-deck shift would prove difficult.

Over the years, there have been cancellations for reasons other than weather.

World War I and II forced the parade to be canceled from 1918 to 1919 and 1942 to 1946.

Organizers spiked the 1991 parade, scheduled for the day before Super Bowl XXV, rather than succumb to pressure to integrate.

The city stepped in with a parade named Bamboleo, but turnout was poor.

In 2008, organizers stopped the Children's Gasparilla Parade after it started when 50 mph winds sent sheets of rain slapping against the pavement.

But cancellation is a worst-case scenario, which won't happen if there's just a little rain, Tarbet said. It's lightning and heavy winds that concern parade organizers.

Diane Kacmarik, a Bay News 9 meteorologist, said thunderstorms are expected in Saturday's storm front.

While still early, she said, computer models predict a wide storm that could last "at least for several hours."

The National Weather Service also released a weather alert Thursday echoing that prognostication.

"If computer models were flip-flopping and changing models, I wouldn't have as much confidence in it," Kacmarik said. "There's been a lot of consistency in these models over the last couple of days."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Forecasts grow foreboding for Gasparilla pirate fest 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 12:03am]

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