For Gasparilla boaters, the ultimate party takes place on the high seas

They can be seen from every view overlooking Seddon Channel — the tiny fleet of pleasure crafts bobbing along behind the Jose Gasparilla before making their way to drop anchor near Bayshore Boulevard.

As much a part of the Gasparilla tradition as the parade itself, spending Saturday morning on the water is how hundreds of people participate in the shenanigans.

"One of the things that make our event unique is the maritime invasion," said Don Barnes, executive officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. "We fire our theatrical cannons and weapons in creating something so unique to Tampa."

More than 500 members of Barnes' crew board the Jose Gasparilla at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club and sail to the Tampa Convention Center to invade the city and proceed to the parade route.

The experience, when combined with alcohol, is like a jovial cattle herd, Barnes said.

"Our priority is getting them aboard so we can arrive at the convention center on time, and then getting them off on the buses so we can start that parade on time," he laughed.

The maritime tradition isn't limited to members of the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, either.

The boats trailing the massive ship are captained by all sorts of revelers — mostly experienced sailors — who take to the water to avoid the teeming streets of Bayshore Boulevard.

You won't catch David Anton standing on a street corner waving for beads on the parade route. The lawyer has been celebrating his hometown's famed event for 30 years on the water.

"The land thing, over the years, has become too difficult," the attorney explained. "Parking is very difficult. Traveling place to place other than by foot is almost impossible, and if you want to see the parade, you have to purchase a seat on Bayshore. Then you're kind of stuck in your area."

So after he graduated from University of Florida's law school, he bought a small Boston Whaler and never looked back.

"Most people that go on my boat are land lovers ... but 20 minutes and you're hooked," he said. "You never want to tackle that crowd again."

He now takes out a pontoon boat that operates as half-party boat, half-water taxi for the duration of the parade. Anton even shuttles a few Rough Riders to the start of the parade route, tying his boat to the Bayshore wall and allowing his nimble passengers to climb up and over to land. The rest of his day is a blur of cruising to parties, watching the parade and moving from location to location to get the full Gasparilla experience.

Even if there are lots of boats in the area, Anton said there has always been an ease of movement on the water you can't find in South Tampa on the day of the parade.

"Think of it as a helicopter to get you around New York City," he said. "You can go places in a few minutes that take two or three hours to get there by land."

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Cpl. Paul Smalley has spent most of his 24 years at the Tampa Police Department working on land during Gasparilla, but in 2013, for the first time, he joined the marine unit for their busiest day of the winter.

"We spend the whole event traveling back and forth to make sure there is a clear pathway for movement," Smalley said. Along with a Tampa Bay-area roll call of assisting agencies and the Coast Guard, Smalley said the event for law enforcement is akin to "organized chaos."

"Compared to the land, it's a completely different animal," Smalley said. "It really is a fun time on the water and such a different thing from being on the parade route. We still get beads thrown to us though."

Every year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds a news conference to outline the rules and the ways to stay safe during and after the invasion and parade. Every year, there are still head-scratching moments.

Smalley said it's rarer these days for people to fall off the ship, but it doesn't stop partiers from jumping into the basin. "It's so dangerous with so many boats around," he said. "Jumping in the basin is not allowed during the event."

Law enforcement also prohibits non-motorized crafts from being in the area during Gasparilla, but some have been known to risk it.

"One year I was towing in the two drunk guys in a kayak," Anton said. "And they were still paddling and dumping water into the boat. They were sinking and didn't even realize it."

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Party cruises don't usually have those problems.

Johnny Pease is taking to the water this weekend after 16 years of hosting one of Gasparilla's most popular landside parties. Gone is the annual Gasparilla Block Party; in its place is a three-hour cruise on the Yacht Starship.

Pease, who throws the party under the banner of Groove Entertainment, said that the party needed a change of location, and his crew drew inspiration from an after party they attended on a smaller Yacht Starship vessel last year.

"It's going to be really nice with good food, premium liquor and you'll get to party feeling like you're a pirate on Gasparilla," he said. "Now that we're getting older we'd like to class it up a little bit."

Several companies offer Gasparilla party cruises for those who want to party on the water but don't have a boat or the requisite skill to operate on a high-traffic, tightly policed day.

Anton's seen his share of foolishness in his years cruising for Gasparilla. He's only ever had one man overboard, and the incident created a hard-and-fast rule for hitching a ride with him: "Don't lean over to throw beads if you're unsure of your balance." Also, don't drink so much you throw off the anchor without tying it to anything.

He's had his own rookie mistakes. "We went out throwing water balloons when I was younger," he said. "That was probably a bad idea because wet and cold is worse than just cold."

The crapshoot that is February weather only brings one constant: Chilly nights on the water. For the ride back, Anton always packs a coat. "The ride back home from dinner after 10 p.m. is always a long, cold one," he said.

Other problems you don't often think about on land also arise. "There's always someone who has to use the bathroom in between stops and then you have find a Port-O-Let you can tie up near so they can get off and go," he said.

For some passengers, being on the water can make them feel trapped. "One year we had this lady on board who had recently broken up with her boyfriend, and she saw him pass by on another ship," Anton said. "She cried hysterically, off in a corner of the boat for two hours until we got back to land. I felt really bad, but what could I do?"

It's all taken in stride. "There are a lot of people in a very good mood when they are on the water that day," Anton said. "We're like a very disjointed and dysfunctional family."

For Gasparilla boaters, the ultimate party takes place on the high seas 01/23/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 3:49pm]

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