The ship at the center of it all: A history of the Jose Gasparilla II

Docked in downtown Tampa, the Jose Gasparilla II is one of the most iconic parts of Gasparilla and a year-round reminder of Tampa’s biggest party and quirkiest tradition. 

Gasparilla began on horseback in 1904 as a way to add a little pirate-themed fun to the city’s May Day festivities. Starting in 1911, though, the event’s founders, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, switched to an invasion by sea. 

Various boats were borrowed or rented through the years, but in 1954, YMKG commissioned the construction of a 165-foot fully rigged pirate ship, which has led the annual invasion of Tampa ever since. 

A luxury cruise liner, she is not. The steel ship’s amenities are pretty basic: Bathrooms, a place to store safety equipment, plenty of pirate perches. But though she be sparse in creature comforts, the Gasparilla II is always well stocked with necessities. 

The Jose Gasparilla II pirate ship at Gasparilla, 1955 (State Archives of Florida)

“There’s plenty of provisions on board: Fried chicken, Cuban sandwiches, and of course, grog,” said Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla member Frank Smith. 

And loaded with hundreds of salty scalawags, she’s long been the heart of this ever-growing festival. 

”It seems to get bigger and bigger and bigger every year, and the better the weather, the bigger the flotilla,” said Smith. 

PHOTOS: The early days of Gasparilla

In his 50 years with this motley krewe of miscreants, Smith has been a part of some pretty wild rides. 

“They used to have a tight-rope walker that would walk in between the two masts. The ship used to go up the channel before the Crosstown was built and then dock at Curtis Hixon Park. It kind of twinged the bridge just a little bit there at Kennedy Boulevard and it sent the tightrope walker flying!” said Smith. “Luckily he landed in the water and was OK, but we don’t do that anymore!” 

The Jose Gasparilla II cruises past the Gasparilla Kids Parade in 2014.

Like horses and actual gun-toting pirates, the tightrope act is a thing of the past, but the legend of Jose Gaspar and his raucous bunch of merry makers is alive and well in Tampa.