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Bead brigade blows in

Cool breezes, lots of sun and hearty crowds greet the annual invasion of Gasparilla pirates.

By BABITA PERSAUD and GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2000


TAMPA -- As she stood on the Krewe of Agustina de Aragon's party boat Saturday, a gust of wind blew Maureen Lynch's long skirt and pushed back her dark, curly hair.

"I feel like I'm 15 or 16 today," she said, "and I'm closer to 60."

She looked out at the calm before the invasion, as the hundreds of boats in the flotilla aimed their bows toward downtown Tampa, their engines quietly humming.

"I love this part," Lynch said.

Sights and sounds -- punctuated by cannon blasts from the Rough Riders' boat -- filled Hillsborough Bay. A sailboat went by with three-dozen bras along its mast, instead of sails. The Sant 'Yago double-decker boat floated past with real palm trees on its upper level.

On the Tampa Fire Rescue boat, a muscular diver stood in a wetsuit. "Are you a calendar boy," shouted Karla Wood, an airlines reservationist, from the Agustina. She tossed him some beads.

Minutes later, the pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe, in their vintage Jose Gasparilla replica pirate ship, docked at the Tampa Convention Center, snatched the keys of the city from the mayor and led fellow krewes in an invasion that has been tradition since 1904.

Gasparilla 2000 was cool, with temperatures never climbing above 55 degrees and a brisk wind adding a chill, yet it didn't seem to matter to most people.

A lady in one cabin boat covered herself in Indian blankets. Another on a speed boat braved the wind and wore a bikini. Four guys in a speedboat didn't mind the weather either, dropping their pants for beads.

The invasion was mostly peaceful too, with only a handful of arrests, although several parents complained that a sheriff's deputy used pepper spray on their children, ranging in age from 4 to 9 years old, because they were in a restricted area. Sheriff's Sgt. Rod Reder said the deputy's spray canister accidentally discharged during a confrontation with one of the parents.

Boats, large and small, started collecting at Ballast Point about noon. There were all kinds of clever names, like Unreel and Bite This II. They came from marinas in Apollo Beach, Ruskin, Palm Beach, Davis Islands and St. Petersburg.

The Jose Gasparilla led the way up Hillsborough Bay, passing the dry docks, the airport on Davis Islands, and coming into view of the people on shore near Tampa General Hospital, where the waves started. Not on the water. But on land. People waving.

The pirates landed about 1:15 p.m., and the parade took to the streets of Bayshore Boulevard and downtown Tampa. Police Chief Bennie Holder led the parade in a red convertible Ford Mustang. The biggest cheers, though, were as usual reserved for the floats full of pirates throwing copious amounts of beads.

Sarah Pierce, 7, who had her blond hair in pig tails and one of her blue eyes covered by a black pirate patch, stuck to a well-executed plan that garnered her plenty of beads. Whenever a float passed she would step out from the crowd by about 5 feet and put on the saddest face possible. Without fail, one of the pirates would toss her a string. Some even hopped off the float to put them around her neck. They got a smile in return.

"How can I compete with that," grumbled Frank Hutchinson, standing nearby.

Sarah reveled in the attention.

"I really like beads," she said.

The weather warmed up for the parade down Bayshore. Police reported one arrest, for disorderly conduct. The New York Yankees float, which had about eight members of the team giving out baseballs, won the grand float prize.

Sights and sounds followed tradition. Frat boys chugged beer. Shopping carts doubled as coolers (lined with trash bags, filled with ice and longnecks). Long lines formed at the portable toilets.

"The choice is between drinking less or surviving the lines," said Melinda Baker, a Gasparilla veteran who estimates 30 minutes of her life is spent in line waiting for a toilet at Gasparilla. "Once again, I'm waiting in line, so I guess the drinking less thing didn't work."

Next year, Gasparilla will be held on Jan. 27 to coincide with Super Bowl XXXV weekend in Tampa.

"I know how crazy Americans are about their football," said Peter Richey, a Briton who visits Tampa regularly. "Combine the parade with that and I cannot imagine the mayhem."

Gasparilla activities continue today with the Pirate Fest and Arts and Crafts show in downtown Tampa from 10 a.m. -- 6 p.m.

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