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Let the invasion begin

The pirates launch Gasparilla after pelting the Navy with bread.

By SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001


TAMPA -- Faced with wind, cold and the biggest enemy ship ever, pirates from Ybor City managed once again to defeat the Navy on Saturday and kick off the start of Gasparilla.

About 100 people, many of them members of the Ybor City Alcalde Association, boarded the SS Ybor to pummel the Navy with water and Cuban bread during the 46th annual mock battle in Tampa.

Their target: the 563-foot USS Vella Gulf cruiser docked behind the Florida Aquarium. Spectators watched from the shore.

Veteran pirates wearing ponchos and beads called it the fiercest fight to date. They also considered it a preview of all the fun and excitement in store over the next week when the Super Bowl comes to town.

"When it's the Super Bowl, you know everything has to be big," said Carol Dell.

In keeping with tradition, everyone on the deck got soaked. Navy crews doused the Hvide tugboat with water hoses, while renegade sailors in smaller boats hit from the sea. They also threw eggs.

The pirates fought back with water and stale bread of all kinds, including marbled rye and pita, which soared like Frisbees. Sam Leto's homemade cannon, the Widowmaker, shot blanks.

Dozens of people huddled in the cabins to stay dry, warm up and eat Cuban sandwiches. A few shielded their beers from the water cannons.

"I think we're going to win again this year," said Jack Harris, alcalde, or mayor, of the Ybor team. "I don't know why, but I think it was the pita bread."

Leto founded the event in 1955 as part of the Gasparilla legend. He was absent for the first time because of an illness. His mates said they sorely missed him.

Upon hearing that pirates plan to invade the city, the mayor hires the Navy to quell the attack, or so the battle story goes. The Navy is no match for the pirates, and the captain is forced to sign a truce.

The "cessation of hostility" clears the way for the pirates to take over the city. That happens next Saturday at 11:30 a.m. The pirates dock at the Tampa Convention Center at 1 p.m., and a parade winds along Bayshore Boulevard starting at 1:45 p.m.

After the hourlong bout, Lt. Ryan Broughton of the Naval Reserve Center declared the pirates "very worthy opponents with significantly more firepower than last year."

Four Navy men were knocked down by the force of the spray and received a few cuts and bruises. A quick trip to medical bay, and they were back at their posts.

Participants said the battle proved as invigorating as ever.

"You've got to do this every year," said Ty Witherington, vice president of the Alcalde Association. "This is part of the history of Ybor City."

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