TAMPA — The deck of the SS American Victory was covered with water, Cuban bread crumbs and palm fronds.
For a moment, those aboard the merchant ship used during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam war, took a break from hurling bits of Cuban bread overboard, and their shouting voices fell silent.
Then, an arch of water sprayed from the Dixie Rebel tugboat came over the SS American Victory’s railing and chaos commenced at the 59th Ybor Naval Invasion, the official start of Gasparilla.
“Get a load! Lure them in!” called Bill Kuzmick, executive director of the SS American Victory Mariner’s Memorial and Museum Ship. “Everybody get a good load! Fire!”
On Kuzmick’s command, several boys and girls, their fists full of Cuban bread, took steps forward and tossed the bread at the Dixie Rebel crew, which responded with more water from several hoses.
One hose-wielding member of the Dixie Rebel crew looked up just as a piece of bread flew past her head. The battle started at “high noon” Sunday.
“We probably have about 120 people (on the SS American Victory) and about 30 boats participated,” Kuzmick said. “A lot of people (on boats) just come by and watch from a distance. It’s all part of the fever of Gasparilla.”
According to legend, pirates hire the mayor of Ybor City and flotilla to get the navy out of the way for the invasion while the navy and Tampa try to fight off the Ybor City forces with Cuban bread. Meanwhile, the Tampa Fire Department is supposed to help defend Tampa but gets paid off by Ybor City and turns on Tampa.
Docked behind the Florida Aquarium on Channelside Drive, the SS American Victory, one of four fully-operational World War II ships in the country, most recently set sail for a Pearl Harbor honor cruise on Dec. 6.
His T-shirt covered with water, William North, 17, of Tampa, grinned as he tossed his last piece of bread at members of the Dixie Rebel.
A member of the Tampa Bay Sea Cadets, North said he comes from a military family and wants to serve in the U.S. Navy after attending Morehouse College in Atlanta.
North has participated in two previous Ybor Naval Invasions.
“It was nothing like I expected it would be,” North said. “It was a lot of fun. We basically just go at it with bread and hoses.”
Smiling wide, North said he “got six or seven head shots with the bread.”
Kuzmick said local bakeries donated hundreds of loaves of old bread for the battle.
Quinn Chittenden, 15, of Tampa, was participating in his first invasion. A member of the Young Men’s Service League’s South Tampa chapter, Quinn said it was a fun event.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said, water dripping down his face. “I kind of just came to volunteer.”
He quickly learned the rules of combat.
“I got a baguette and broke it off and hit two people,” he said. “It started pretty much as soon as I got there.”