Pirates threaten to seize Tampa

A waterfront view of the Tampa Flotilla

It’s not a hostile takeover, however, like Captain Phillips experienced. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

On January 28th, Tampa’s flotilla of private pleasure craft intends to defend the city and square off against the annual pirate invasion for an epic weekend of hedonistic celebration. For 113 years, the city has surrendered amidst a cacophony of cannon fire as Jose Gasparilla, the world’s only fully-rigged pirate ship, shoots its way through thousands of boats that guard the downtown waterfront. Themed around the swashbuckling pirate Jose Gaspar, who menaced Florida’s Gulf Coast in the 1800s, the invasion is followed by a bead-throwing pirate parade that attracts a crowd of nearly half a million. This is the city’s signature social event led by Ye Mystic Krewe, a merry band of elite movers and shakers who don war paint, fake jagged scars and festive costumes.

Transient slips are ransomed for gold at the downtown Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, Convention Center and Harbour Island docks, but if you know a resident along Harbour Island or Davis Islands that flank the channel to downtown, you may get lucky with an unused overnight slip. Now, here’s your tip. Located on the west side of Tampa’s peninsula is a hidden gem, West Shore Yacht Club, with space for vessels up to 80′. Dockmaster Ryan Smith says the weekend is popular and transients enjoy full use of the clubhouse and amenities. By boat you are less than 40 minutes away from joining the flotilla. Other marina venues close by include St. Petersburg Municipal, the nearby Vinoy Resort and marinas in and around Ruskin and Apollo Beach. Gasparilla is a weekend-long participatory sport. It’s best to bring beads for ransom and trade, plenty of that spicy brown concoction bearing the likeness of a certain pirate and ear plugs. gasparillapiratefest.com

Cabbage Key

A far less raucous destination this time of year is secluded and off the proverbial beaten path: Cabbage Key located just south of Charlotte Harbor. Every Jimmy Buffet fan knows that Jimmy sailed here, enjoyed a famous cheeseburger and maybe even signed a dollar like thousands of other mariners who continue the tradition of taping a beer buck to the ceiling. What you may have overlooked are the unpretentious docks with power for an overnight stay. The Inn and famous restaurant sit atop a 30-foot-tall Indian shell mound. Climb the water tower for an incomparable view of nearby Useppa Island Club to the east and Gulf of Mexico to the west. Dinner, the honky-tonk piano and stories well into the night, coupled with a lush, island-like display of tropical flora and fauna help you forget that the mainland and all those tourists covered in oil are just a few miles away. Not to be overlooked is pulling in for a simple breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Winter is an ideal time to visit. The air temperature is perfect and sunsets are as pink as steamed Gulf shrimp, but running the protected ICW is often necessary thanks to the weekly cold front that riles up the Gulf for a day or two. Docks that were rebuilt after a couple of hurricanes a decade ago are solid and well suited for yacht traffic. cabbagekey.com

By Alan Wendt, Southern Boating Magazine January 2017