TARPON SPRINGS — Anyone who wants to learn more about real Florida and what makes this state unique can get an upclose look during Tarpon Springs' Fourth Annual Gulf Maritime Festival Saturday.
Forget about theme parks and roller coasters. Walk along the docks. Take time to listen, watch and speak to the maritime masters and experts from Cortez to Apalachicola who will be present to demonstrate or talk about their lives and livelihoods.
They will be able to answer almost any question you could ask about Florida fishing, crabbing, shrimping, scalloping, diving for sponges and building boats, because most of them have earned their living from the water.
"Maritime industries have been incredibly important for Florida throughout our history," said Tina Bucavalas, curator of Arts & Historical Resources for the city. "As a state with 1,100 miles of coastline, people tend to live by the shore and many of them have traditionally earned their living through the sea. Those who don't earn their living that way tend to be involved in recreational activities that deal with the Atlantic or the gulf."
John Tsataros of Tarpon Springs may not earn his living offshore, but generations of his family have. His family is an integral part of Florida history and Tarpon Springs in particular.
John carves model sponge boats from blocks of wood, just as his father, Costa Tsataros, did before him. Costa was a sponge diver and his grandfather was a sponge diver and hook-boat captain. And like many sponge divers did for entertainment in their leisure time, Costa carved replicas of the boats on which he made a living.
To show their pride in the boats they loved, they gave their models intricate details so they were almost exact replicas of the real boats. And particular attention was paid to painting the boats in traditional Greek sponge boat colors.
John Tsataros carries that tradition forward. He and his brother Steve create the model boats, but for a different reason than their ancestors.
"This is a chance to help preserve the history of the sponge industry, the cultural end of it," said John, 55.
Like their father, they take care to paint the models just so.
"We use traditional colors," said John. "The boats always had bright and vibrant colors. It's an old craft. Lots of people make boats, but not too many make sponge boats."
Bob Pitt of Manatee County makes boats, too — full-sized boats, the kind you climb aboard and slip into the Gulf of Mexico. His family has built boats for centuries. They arrived in the Bahamas from Portugal in the 1500s.
"I grew up listening to stories of my grandmother and my great-great uncle of growing up in the Keys," said Pitt. "They told stories about going back and forth between the Keys and the Bahamas."
Pitt will be on hand Saturday to answer questions and talk about boats and turning wood into water-tight vessels. He is a member of FISH Cortez, The Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage, which will bring different types of boats to the festival. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Florida's traditional Gulf Coast maritime communities.
"The Gulf Maritime Festival is one of the best things happening on the west coast of Florida," said Pitt. "I've worked with Tina for years. She contacted me when I worked for the Florida Maritime Museum to come and display boats. We've been doing it every year since."
Simply walking along the festival route with the backdrop of Tarpon's docks creates an ambiance few communities can replicate. Tarpon Springs has an authentic working waterfront, one of few left in Florida. And the Maritime Festival is a unique opportunity to see and learn first-hand about sponge diving and sponge processing, making diving helmets and nets, fishing, clam farming, boat building and model boats.
The smell of smoked mullet will waft through the crowd Saturday.
Music also will fill the air as Six Volt Rodeo plays country and western swing music.
"I love the Gulf Maritime Festival," said John Tsataros. "It's a multicultural event with people coming from all over the state of Florida. My brother and I are trying to preserve a bit of folk art that is unique to this town."