Aboard Tampa's pirate ship, the 'Jose Gasparilla'

The wheel is brought aboard the Jose Gasparilla at Port Tampa Bay on Jan. 17. The ship, helmed by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla to ceremonially invade the city of Tampa, is actually a barge whose direction is controlled by a pair of tugboats.  
The wheel is brought aboard the Jose Gasparilla at Port Tampa Bay on Jan. 17. The ship, helmed by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla to ceremonially invade the city of Tampa, is actually a barge whose direction is controlled by a pair of tugboats. 
Published Jan. 22, 2014


Cross the gangplank onto the deck — painted fire-engine red — for a rare tour of the Jose Gasparilla.

Flags flutter overhead as 50 men prep for Saturday's siege. On the 1 1/2-hour trip to take the city, the ship will smell of fried chicken and beer and gunpowder and the blasts of 20 cannons will be deafening.

"It's not for amateurs," said Peter Lackman, 52. "We are professional pirates."

The transit across Hillsborough Bay marks the Jose Gasparilla's 60th year of loyal service to Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

Lackman points out a brass builder's plate by the steps to the fly bridge. His father, the late George Lackman Jr., as a young engineer in 1954, was tasked by Tampa Ship Repair & Drydock Co. to build something "simple and cheap." It took seven months and cost $100,000. The city, county and Florida State Fair Association kicked in $15,000 each. The ship was christened with Jamaican rum, of course, on the club's 50th anniversary.

The Queen Mary she ain't. Amenities can be counted on one hand and an engine is not one of them.

"She's a giant, massive, metal floating box," Lackman said.

But to the eyes of her cigar-smoking, flask-toting, bead-tossing crew, she's a beaut.

• • •

Members of the Mystic Mariners, a committee of 35 dedicated to the ship's safety, position the mahogany wheel beneath the fly bridge where Capt. John Timmel will take command. Jamaican rum, water scooters and yachts will swarm alongside, said to be the largest U.S. annual boat parade.

Propulsion comes from two tugboats, one pulling from the bow, one pushing aft at 5 knots.

The ship measures 147 feet stem to stern, counting a 17-foot bowsprit.

Toilets are in the bow, including a shiny trough urinal. Life vests, food and 100 cases of beer are stored aft.

In between, wall-to-wall men, "650 happy souls," Lackman said, although there is capacity for 800.

There's space today for a DJ, for many years reserved for a band. There's a mountain of fried chicken and Cuban sandwiches.

"You eat one to absorb the booze and stash one for later," Lackman said.

• • •

Pirates perch by tradition, in the same spot year after year.

Recently, Bill Byrd scampered nimbly 45 feet above the deck to one of four crow's nests, his lookout for 25 voyages, to hoist the Jolly Roger.

"Crawling up the ratlines, (pronounced rattlins) is like climbing a wall," Lackman said. "Slide down and you bounce into the next layer of dudes."

He guesses about a third of the pirates carry guns.

"Rookies always get their hat shot up," Lackman said. "Bang bang, you're not a rookie anymore. Mine looks like a bowling ball."

Yet injuries are rare, he swears, as proud as he is amazed as their safety record.

Retired architect Jimmy Robbins, a krewe member of 57 years, was in a crow's nest the ship's first year.

"We were in the middle mast with the Great Arturo, a tightrope walker," Robbins recalled. "We went through the Platt, Lafayette (Kennedy) and Cass bridges okay. On the approach to the railroad bridge, we saw the spar was going to hit. I was scared to death. The tugs pushed us around and we missed by an eyebrow. That was my last time in the crow's nest."

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• • •

In six decades, just three men have helmed the Jose Gasparilla, the late Lackman, Naval architect Buck Younger and Timmel, a harbor pilot.

In 1904, civic leaders arrived on horseback to demand the city keys. For a more authentic entrance, the krewe began renting shrimp boats, lumber sloops or barges in 1911, all renamed Jose Gasparilla for the day. In 1916, chickens and pigs left aboard a schooner called Brazos caused quite a commotion — blamed on grog spilled on deck.

Scrounging for rentals ended in October 1936 with the purchase of the William Brisbee. The three-masted schooner served as the first Jose Gasparilla until 1952.

Since then, only twice has our current ship failed to cross the bay. The first was a storm of 70-mph winds causing 8-foot waves in 1971. The second time another sort of storm caused ill winds when the krewe declined to integrate its membership and the 1991 invasion was canceled.

For most of the year, the pirate ship berths at the City Docks on Bayshore Boulevard, amusing locals and tourists.

Last month, the ship was towed off to wash away a year of foul fowl droppings.

"Our Guano Protection System is why we don't need year-round security," Lackman said. "No one climbs on that guano."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.