Gasparilla At Sea: A Wake On The Wild Side

It’s not by affirmative-action issues, Cuban-American politics and Channelside redevelopment scenarios alone that columnists live. At least not this one. Not this week.

Sometimes it’s just good, well, therapy to step back from the journalistic fray of fighting the good fight. To ease off the socially responsible schtick. To dismount that high horse of conviction. To experience an alternative perspective. To take yourself much less seriously.

Sorry for the windy preamble, but this is obviously a lame, self-serving rationale for something. And as it turns out, something normally not noted and mused about in a family newspaper. But without the following eye-witness account, yet another Gasparilla Day in Tampa would have passed without someone chronicling in some detail what happens on the high seas — in effect, a wake on the wild side.

One of the first things you notice on board with the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’Yago is that you’re in the midst of some 275 guys in sequined capes, necklaces and tights. And some absolutely have the legs for it. But it’s not, of course, some form of political correctness run amok.

Early on, the countdown moves inexorably toward 9:45 a.m. That’s when the Krewe, stoked on café con leche and Cuban toast, leaves its Tampa Convention Center mooring and heads out toward Ballast Point to rendezvous with the mother ship, the Jose Gasparilla, and several hundred other craft. Equally of note: 9:45 also marks the point at which the cash bar converts to open. Lots of 9:46 Bloody Marys.

The cast of characters on the double-decked boat with palm trees on top is an affable mix of business execs, salesmen, attorneys, physicians, engineers, teachers, at least one psychologist, and probably a couple of dot commies. Heavy on gregarious Hispanics with old Tampa taproots. It’s back slapping, hearty-laughing, lie-telling, cigar-chomping camaraderie. It’s how guys used to act before networking was an art form or anybody cared about having an alpha side. It’s vintage Tampa.

There’s a guy in red who’s an eerie amalgam of Captain Morgan and Frank Zappa. There’s also the reigning king, Jose Dominguez, pressed out handsomely in crown; flowing, white cape; and high, stiff collar that would also do justice to another king.

Once at sea, the indoor ambience is dominated by the pulsing beat of Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan tunes, long bathroom lines and middle-aged testosterone bursts not unrelated to photo ops with a couple of comely waitresses in epidermal britches. All around are concentric circles of boats with names not subtle enough to be suggestive. They include “Sea Stud,” “IV Play,” “Wet Spot” and “Bite This.”

There are also numerous craft with such prosaic names as “Police,” “Sheriff” and “Coast Guard.” Personnel on board, many sporting beads and animated expressions, didn’t seem exactly put out over the assignment. Perhaps it’s to enforce city council’s six-foot ordinance.

The high-decibel music is interrupted periodically by the captain/emcee/lounge comedian/procurer who bellows whimsically in mildly bawdy code. For example, the word “ jaeba ,” Spanish slang for crab, becomes an anatomical euphemism as the Krewe heads for the known flash points on Hillsborough Bay.

The Shecky Green of the high seas would routinely inquire of the jaeba status of incoming cigarette boats and cabin cruisers on behalf of the bead-bedecked Krewe. “ Jaeba to the right” would alert the Krewe of incoming female flashers, some with “Bead Me” signs, off the starboard side. These human hood ornaments were obviously fortified by adult beverages and often cosmetic enhancements — and emboldened by the sight of bead-bearing, harmless guys in gaudy tunics and feathered caps.

References to the “feel of approval,” admonitions to not “bruise the fruit,” and queries as to whether “they are real or pasta?” played as a continuous loop.

The more, uh, coquettish sorts had to be, uh, cajoled with bead-inducing entreaties of “pull it up,” “free ’em,” and “free them puppies.” Not since the sale of Manhattan Island have beads been better barter bargains. But at least this time, the term “consenting adults” was more applicable.

As if party to some ritualistic tit for tat — or maybe just an off-course feminist — one woman held aloft a “Show Us Your balls” sign. Talk about cojones .

After a while, it wasn’t easy keeping abreast of all the new-found bosom buddies barely containing themselves. But don’t get the idea that all female flashers, including those who offered more than mere toplessness, were godsends from central casting. The, uh, non-nubile were also represented, sometimes prompting this sort of one-sided exchange: “Here’s some beads. Don’t show us any more. Please.”

Appetites thus sated for another invasion day, the Krewe heads back in the midst of the world’s most unique flotilla, a festive phenomenon that is all too truly Tampa. “Yeah, Tampa Bay, we’re coming home,” exhorts the Alvarez Guedes of Gasparilla.

Now alongside are the more discreet “Sea N Double,” “Vince Able,” “Midaswell,” “Knot On Call” and “Y Knot.”

Indeed. Well, at least knot until next year.

Now about those pandering, presidential candidates coming here and butting into “One Florida” politics

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