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Cops keep a lid on the carousing as hundreds of boaters join the Gasparilla flotilla

As many as 100 law enforcement boats from some 20 agencies will keep an eye out for drunk operators and boats in trouble.
Leading the way up Seddon Channel during the 2014 pirate invasion is the Jose Gasparilla, escorted by a Tampa Police Department boat and surrounded by hundreds of private vessels.
Leading the way up Seddon Channel during the 2014 pirate invasion is the Jose Gasparilla, escorted by a Tampa Police Department boat and surrounded by hundreds of private vessels. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times 2014 ]
Published Jan. 24, 2020
Updated Jan. 24, 2020

TAMPA — Three years ago, Capt. Laura Lothridge went out on her charter boat for the Gasparilla pirate invasion with a group of insurance company employees.

After a day on the water, she said, they joked that “they’ll never write a marine insurance policy ever again after seeing the craziness.”

Related: Complete Gasparilla coverage from the Tampa Bay Times

It’s easy to understand why. A flotilla of hundreds of private boats, led by a pirate ship, mounts an invasion of Tampa’s Seddon Channel, their crews tossing beads, carousing and swashbuckling in the way pirates do. It all sounds a bit perilous.

Yet the hijinks on the low seas, culminating in a pirate ship landing at the Tampa Convention Center that precedes the big parade at 2 p.m. Saturday, are generally in good, safe fun. That’s a credit to the revelers and the vigilance of law enforcement agencies who are on watch for lawless buccaneers.

“It’s the biggest water event in the city," said master deputy Paul Shute, who has been with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s marine unit for 19 years and will be out again Saturday. “We’re dedicated to see it goes off smoothly and people enjoy themselves and have a safe and sober day.”

Shute said he’s seen as many as 1,500 boats in the flotilla and is expecting a good turnout this year.

The Tampa Police Department said there were nine arrests during Gasparilla 2019 for boating under the influence, down from 15 the previous year; it said it didn’t record any boat crashes.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 21 boating citations — things like careless operation of a vessel or safety-gear violations — and 54 boating safety warnings at last year’s event.

More than 20 agencies help patrol the waters for the event, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Hillsborough and Pinellas sheriff’s offices and the St. Petersburg and Clearwater police departments, said Tampa police spokesman Eddy Durkin.

He said his department’s marine unit dive team will be prepared to handle any potential water rescues.

“Think of a packed concert venue, but in the water,” Durkin said in an email. "It is a busy boating day with a lot of boats in a small area.”

He warned that Gasparilla is not for novice boaters. The water is plenty deep and there are few hazards, but it’s choppy from all the vessels funneling into the narrow channel.

Shute said he expects 75 to 100 law enforcement boats will be out on the water, their crews making hundreds of stops to ensure boaters have the right number of life vests on board, that boats aren’t overloaded and that other safety requirements are being met.

He said the law enforcement presence may explain why there have been fewer issues with intoxicated boaters in recent years. Still, he said, each boat should have a designated operator because law enforcement will be on the lookout for alcohol violations.

Officers and deputies will also be watching for any boats that may break down or start taking on water.

Capt. Ben Victor works for Tampa Bay Yacht Charter, which Lothridge owns, and said he notices the law enforcement presence on the water every Gasparilla.

Victor, who will be operating the boat Smooth C’s on Saturday, said he’s seen some boats in the past he thought were overloaded and unsafe.

But he also said the event is generally fun and well-handled.

“I’ve been out there since 2012,” Victor said. “I only remember one time seeing someone fall off a boat, and someone got them yanked out of the water pretty quick.”

The Coast Guard is prepared to end the voyage for anyone not boating safely, said Petty Officer 1st Class Ayla Hudson.

“Most that go have done it before and know how it works and know safety precautions,” Hudson said. “We’re always prepared in the event something does go wrong.”