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Gusty winds prompt small craft advisory on Gasparilla day

Forecasters say inexperienced boaters should avoid the open water as the winds kick up.

TAMPA, Fla — It’s a long-standing tradition: hundreds of boats joining the Jose Gasparilla as it makes its way up the Seddon Channel and into downtown Tampa.

But this year’s weather forecast could — and maybe should — have some people thinking twice about joining the flotilla.

“It would be foolish,” said Master Sgt. Ryan Balseiro with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit. “You’re talking 3-foot seas in the bay.”

Balseiro says they’re carefully watching Saturday’s forecast, which currently calls for sustained winds of 23 mph and seas 3-5 feet outside the channel. A small craft advisory goes into effect Friday night and runs through Saturday evening.

“There are going to be days that are no-go days. And when the Coast Guard puts out small craft advisories, you know, you need to heed that warning,” Balseiro said.

Another danger is density. With so many boats packed so close together, it could make for some difficult, if not dangerous, navigating. In 1971, they still had the parade, but the flotilla was called off because of bad weather. This year?

“They are monitoring it the same as us,” Balseiro said. “Paying very close attention to wind.”

The decision as to whether the pirate ship sails, said Balseiro, is a call made by the towing company that pulls the barge, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. Something else to think about? It’s going to be cold out there. That means people are going to be wearing sweatshirts and heavy coats.

Safety experts say to make sure your personal floatation devices and life jackets are big enough to fit over all of that. People we spoke with who boat on a regular basis say they might sit this one out.

“If you don’t have to go out on the water, I would personally recommend not,” said Josh Campbell, who started boating about a year ago as many have during the pandemic.

“Things can flip a switch real quick,” said boat captain Will Robertson. “I’ve seen it happen multiple times.”

“And it’s just not fun anyway,” added Joe Williams, a life-long boater. “Why do you wanna be out on the water on a rough day, cold rough day?”

For those working to ensure public safety, it's their advice, too. Especially for those wanna-be pirates whose boats aren’t built for the high seas. Or those small-sized boats that could become a big problem.

“Yeah, heed the warning. Stay inside the protected area. And, you know, just be mindful,” Balseiro said. “There’s a lot of things to consider.”