More than a decade ago, Clearwater resident and former PTA president Jeff DiPolito donned a pirate costume for the school’s annual carnival.
Three years later, in 2002, he and three friends formed the Ye Mystic Krewe of the Santa Margarita, or YMKSM, one of the few Gasparilla parade participants from Pinellas County and probably the only one born from a PTA costume.
Today, YMKSM is not only the official krewe of Clearwater, but the largest krewe in the county, boasting roughly 250 members throughout Tampa Bay and a fleet that includes a 50-foot galleon float, a 25-foot dock house float and, this year, its own cruise ship that will participate in the official parade flotilla.
“I had never even been to Gasparilla, even as a spectator, before this started,” DiPolito said by phone last week. “But I thought Clearwater needed a krewe … and here we are, 10 years later.
“I pinch myself every day.”
The journey from pretend Plumb pirate to admiral of an official parade krewe hasn’t always been an easy one. Bad weather, unruly parade participants and loose cannons have all plagued the krewe at one point or another.
Perhaps YMKSM’s toughest challenge came in August, when vandals struck the floats, which are housed in a lot in Largo, and stole four cannons, broke windows and caused approximately $2,000 in damage.
It wasn't so much the monetary loss that hurt, but the fact that someone would desecrate a couple of handmade parade floats while krewe members were off doing charity work in the community.
“It felt like your home was broken into, like you had been violated,” float captain Mark Dauck said. “The police came out, all the media came out, it was crazy. The damage was minor ... but all I wanted was my cannons back.”
The cannons have not been recovered, and no one was caught in conjunction with the crime, but the krewe has fully recovered as it prepares for its 10th Gasparilla Parade of Pirates on Saturday.
Not that Gasparilla is the only game in town for the Santa Margarita.
DiPolito estimates the krewe participates in 10 or 12 events per year, including the Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey, the DeSoto Heritage Festival in Bradenton and the Dunedin Mardi Gras parade, which he says is one of the krewe’s favorites.
But no matter where they are or what happens to them, Ye Mystic Krewe of the Santa Margarita guarantees its members will have a good time.
”The krewe is run like a business, but we treat everybody like family,” DiPolito said, a theme that was echoed by every other krewe member we spoke to.
In fact, YMSKM is one of the few krewes that allows children to enter, and it has no formal dress requirements or mandatory fees other than membership dues.
"No one is in this for personal gain," DiPolito said. "It's all about the friends you make and the experiences you get. We do a lot to make people feel a part of the krewe.
“Aside from raising my two daughters, this krewe is my greatest accomplishment."