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Pirates' voyage charted

Captain Ron and his crew take pride in manning the sights and sounds that arise from the ship on game day.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003


BUCCANEER COVE -- Jeff Garcia made an inviting target as the 49ers quarterback warmed up before Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game.

"Can we hit him with a T-shirt?" I asked Captain Ron, master of the Buccaneers pirate ship. "I don't want to hurt him ... just shake him up a little."

The skipper lowered his head, then shared the awful truth.

"The cannons aren't real," he confessed. "The only thing that comes out of those barrels is confetti."

Say it isn't so! I spent the better part of last week studying pirates and naval artillery in the hope that I might get a chance to fire a little rubber football through the goal posts.

But just minutes before kickoff, my swashbuckling host said the whole thing was a ruse.

"You mean you're not even a real pirate?" I asked.

No, he admitted. He just played one on game day.

"We're all from MacDill," the would-be buccaneer said. "We do this for fun."

Ron Gutschmidt, a.k.a. Captain Ron, said he worked for one of those semisecret government acronym agencies, which is why he covers his body with beads, earrings and tattoos of pewter and red.

While much of his prepirate past must remain undisclosed, the 58-year-old confirmed that before moving to Tampa, he was a Redskins fan.

"But my loyalty now lies with the Bucs," Gutschmidt said. "I'm their biggest fan."

That's the pirate way ... you have a respectable job one day, then the next you're firing rolled up T-shirts and Mardi Gras beads at fans.

Gutschmidt and his pirate crew, all of whom are civilians or military personnel from MacDill Air Force Base, maintain and operate the 103-foot pirate ship that is a fixture in the north end zone of Raymond James Stadium.

Gutschmidt's arsenal includes seven cannons that fire smoke during player introductions and each time the Bucs enter the red zone or score.

The thundering boom comes from a propane-powered noisemaking device mounted on the forecastle.

"Some people say it is a kablooey," said Russell Clark of Sigma Services, the special effects company that helps the pirate crew operate the cannons. "But I think it is more of a kablam."

No matter how you describe it, there is no disputing the cannons make a lot of noise.

"If I were to guess, I would say it is 160 decibels," said Travis Weir, Clark's business partner. "That's loud."

Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson and coach Jon Gruden complained about the cannons during the regular season.

Bruce Harrell, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who has worked security on the pirate ship since its 1998 debut, said you get used to the boom. "It is worth it. The pirate ship is the best seat in the house."

But the cannons aren't the only pirate props that drew Gruden's ire. A remote-controlled talking parrot mounted on the ship's stern often is used to heckle opposing fans who wander into Buccaneer Cove.

"Our old radio system somehow kept getting picked up by Gruden's headset," said Ron Rothberg, the official voice of the pirate parrot. "It was driving him crazy ... he said get his guy out of my head."

The highlight of any pirate's day is using one of the ship's three air-powered deck guns to fire T-shirts and beads at fans in the end zones.

"They have limited range, and you can't aim them anywhere you want," said cannon master Pat Cullina, a Bears fan before he decided the pirate life was for him. "We don't want any T-shirt fights on deck."

Occasionally, the wind might catch a shirt, which is rolled into a tight, 14-inch by 2-inch projectile, and send it onto the field or into one of the luxury suites.

And as the 49ers drove toward the end zone late in the first quarter, I told Gutschmidt we could put the deck guns to better use.

"Why don't we fire one of those T-shirts at the kicker just when he is about to try for the field goal?" I said to the Dread Captain Gutschmidt. "Then we would really be pirates."

But Gutschmidt begged to differ.

"If we did that, then I think we would both be out on the street."

In case you weren't listening ...

The pirate ship fired its cannons 36 times during Sunday's game: 31 times for points and five times for forays into the red zone.

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