Meet the sober hands at the wheel of the Gasparilla pirate ship

·5 min read

Around Tampa Bay, a pirate ship often stands as the area’s symbol, especially for the Jan. 29 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. Some 300,000 people are expected to swarm Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa to beg the invading pirates for beads and doubloons in a daylong parade.

The ship will patrol the waterway during Saturday’s Children’s Gasparilla Parade. But for the big invasion on Jan. 29, the day starts with the appearance of a pirate ship named Jose Gasparilla. It was built in 1954 to serve as a fully rigged emblem for Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. They were the prominent men who founded the festival in 1904 to promote Tampa, and the krewe remains the parade’s lead organizers.

George Lackman, the late father of the current captain of the krewe, Peter Lackman, helped build the ship and served as its first captain. But starting in 1995, licensed harbor pilot John Timmel, 65, took the helm for the tricky job of steering a top-heavy ship through Hillsborough Bay while hundreds of private boats join in the Gasparilla flotilla “invasion.”

The boat itself is basically a barge. Three tugboats are used to pull it from the front, push it forward from behind and steer it from the side. One of the tugs, the Dorothy, has been working in the ports of Florida since 1898, well before Gasparilla started. Few notice the tugs doing all the work with more than 1,000 boats and yachts swarming around the spectacle.

“It looks like the ship is self-propelled and moving along by itself. Obviously you can see the tugboats if you look, but they sort of blend into the scene amongst the other boats,” Timmel said.

That created a terrifying moment one year, Timmel said, when a small powerboat tried to zip through the space between the Dorothy and the Jose Gasparilla. Luckily, nearby police boats blocked what could have been a fatal shortcut if the powerboat had hit the tow line, he said.

In recent years, that space between the tug and pirate ship has been protected in a dramatic way by Tampa Fire Rescue boats that shoot huge sprays of water into the sky as they lead the Jose Gasparilla into the harbor.

When the boat emerges at about 11:30 a.m. on that Saturday, it will be bedazzled with lights, nearly 300 flags and a couple dozen nets while hundreds of krewe members and friends in full regalia hang from every fixture of the 165-foot vessel.

On a recent tour of the ship, which is drydocked in an Ybor shipyard in the off-season, Timmel reflected on the work he has done over the last 27 years to move the casual party atmosphere of the ship’s operation into a more focused effort with licensed harbor pilots such as himself and his son Jack, 34, at the wheel.

“It’s the funnest thing I do all year, but it’s the least sensible thing I do professionally because there’s only like 1,400 boats out there that want to bump into you,” Timmel said.

As the few sober people on the boat that day, the Gasparilla sail masters have a high perch near the back of the boat and use radios to communicate with the tugboat operators and nearby Coast Guard and police boats.

Chaos is their biggest obstacle, said Jack Timmel, who is being primed to take over as his father eases out of his Gasparilla duties in the next few years.

“The biggest difficulty is the noise and confusion,” Jack Timmel said. “You are communicating with the tugboats, trying to talk to the people on board, communicating externally with the Coast Guard. All the while guns and cannons are going off, there’s smoke blowing across your face, and people are yelling and music is playing. That’s a challenge you don’t get when you are doing other vessels.”

It’s not his hardest piloting work, said Jack Timmel, who steers huge cruise ships and tankers for his day job. But it’s one of the few ways he said he can use his piloting skills to give back to his hometown.

The boat moves fairly slowly, from 2 to 6 knots, for its 90-minute journey of 5 miles into Seddon Channel. Docking it near the Tampa Convention Center can often be the hardest trick of the day, John Timmel said.

Some of the changes he’s made over the years included adding extra licensed harbor pilots to be on hand that day if needed as backup, adding safety nets to the rigging and assembling an army of volunteers to serve as lookouts and safekeepers.

“Our job is to make sure the pirates have as much fun as they can possibly have and not hurt themselves,” John Timmel said. “If I have a legacy it is that we brought the ship from a little bit more of a casual thing to a much more formalized and safer vessel.”

He likens the pilot to “the conductor of the orchestra,” telling the tugboats to move left or speed up and coordinating with the Coast Guard and the many law enforcement boats that provide escort.

“It just astounds me how big it has become. We have the biggest flotilla in the country,” he said, looking back over almost three decades. “Gasparilla started as a way to put Tampa’s name on the map. Only in Tampa would that festival be based on a pirate. But it’s become our identity. Everything has a pirate ship in the background. That’s what Tampa is.”

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