Skip to main content
Original Issue

Tampa Bay: fun for all ages

A sailor turned tourist finds an amazing range of sports in this sun-filled place where land and sea are intertwined

Scattered here and there about planet earth are areas apparently created by a beneficent Providence especially for the small-boat sailor. These combine wide yet sheltered waters for racing and cruising, hidden creeks for gunk-holing, reliable breezes of moderate intensity and, usually, virtually unfailing sunshine. Such is the Tampa Bay area.

But this is only part of the story. For St. Petersburg, geographically and culturally the center of the area, is more than a waterman's paradise of purest ray serene, or even the basking place for octogenarians and proving ground for the science of geriatrics that it is generally known to be. In fact, a single brief stroll along Bayshore Drive will reveal one of the most amazing ranges of contrasts known to sport.

To the south, an airfield juts into Tampa Bay. Its unobstructed approaches, central location, pleasant surroundings and lack of commercial activity make it perfect for private flying. Across the street from the northern boundary is a softball diamond maintained by the city, the outfield putting-green smooth. Here the redoubtable Kids take on the cavorting Kubs twice a week, a contest somewhat unusual because players, in order to qualify, must have passed their 74th birthday.

Down the third-base foul line and across the drive is a launching ramp for outboards and small sailing craft, from which on a warm midwinter afternoon fans a procession of water skiers, fishermen and just plain messers-about-in-boats.

Next in order is Al Lang Field, where the brawny stalwarts of the St. Louis Cardinals shag flies and try for the fences through the spring-training and exhibition season, and the New York Yankees play exhibition games. Yet a high foul clearing the stands behind the plate could almost land among the shuffleboard players and horseshoe pitchers of the Sunshine Pleasure Club, perhaps even upsetting a fast game of checkers or whist at tables under the palms.

And then comes the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, one of the most active sailing organizations in America, with its own fleet of ocean racers perhaps expanded by entries in the annual jaunt across the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Stream to Havana.

All this within a half mile!

"Sure," said a local acquaintance, "we have the old folks here in St. Pete. You see 'em sitting on the benches along Central Avenue and in the parks, and you'll find wheelchair ramps on every corner in the business district, but they're pretty well concentrated. Just go around with your eyes open and see what you see."


And I did on my most recent visit, and came away with a most amazing impression: nowhere are more people of all conditions and ages doing more things outdoors, or having more pleasure in the process. Or, for that matter, being more friendly.

In order to appreciate the area some geographic comprehension is required but, unfortunately, it is not easy to define, nor is there a handy label. The "Mangrove Coast" some call it, from the trees which line the shore anywhere that man has not fought the battle with nature; much of the coastal land is the work of this tough saltwater growth, whose intertwining roots caught and held drifting sand, gradually building up above the high-water mark, until birds and vegetation could add humus. The chamber of commerce tag is the "Sun-coast," differentiating it from the "Goldcoast" across the peninsula—itself a rather revealing distinction.

To me, although the vaguely heart-shaped Tampa Bay is the heart of the section, as an entity it extends from Tarpon Springs on the north to the Manatee River ports of Palmetto and Bradenton on the south; from the fringing islands along the Gulf of Mexico on the west to the shoal, mangrove-lined creeks of Hillsboro Bay to the east. It is low, flat country, nowhere many feet above the highest spring tides, tending to be bare except where cultivated. In some respects it resembles the ridge country of northern Florida; there are oaks festooned with trailing Spanish moss, and stands of pine trees almost like Alabama and Georgia. But also it combines the vegetation of the Everglades and southernmost peninsula. There are palms and casuarinas, flowering hibiscus and gardenia and saw grass—and the ever-present mangrove. Everywhere there are vistas of water, so that it is hard to say whether it is water bounded by land or land encompassed by water. Off the main bay are lesser bays and rivers, behind the coastal islands are long narrow sounds, off the sounds are bayous, and these end in innumerable trailing fingers.

Even on a chart it looks inviting. "Nineteen years ago I lived in Indianapolis," mused Doc Jennings one noon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "I had an old 42-foot schooner, a small practice, mighty little money and a new wife. I sailed Lake Michigan when I could. But I wanted to live close to the water and sail all year round. I had never been to Florida but, anyway, I bought the Coast and Geodetic Survey charts and studied them. Tampa Bay looked best of all. Then my wife became pregnant. It was a case of getting away then or never. So in November of 1940 we loaded aboard the schooner and came down the Mississippi and across the gulf. We found just what we wanted."

"And tell about your Johnny," suggested Vice Commodore Dick Winning.

Doc grinned. "He didn't have much choice; he had to be a sailor. He came up through the Junior program and last year won the National Thistle Class Championship."

Common to the area is a tremendous interest in developing young sailors. The first steps of toddlers are toward the water, to grasp a fishing pole is as natural to youngsters as the Babinski reflex, jib sheets are used for teething, and in many families the Optimist Pram has been substituted for a cradle.

Clark Mills developed the Optimist Pram in a tree-shaded little boatyard overlooking Clearwater Bay. He arrived from Michigan aged 2, and, in his words: "I don't know anything different from Florida—I'm a Cracker." But he knows and loves boats—and kids. "'Bout 10 years ago couple fellers from the Optimist Club asked me to dope out somethin' cheap for young'uns. I worked up an 8-foot job of plywood carrying 35 square feet of sail that anybody could build complete for around a hunnerd bucks, and these guys with the gift of gab sold 'em to the merchants in town. Either his kid or someone else's sailed the boat, and the feller who paid had the privilege of painting the name of his store on the side. If that gave kids a chance to get out on the water, I was for it, except it got so I was messing with 'em more than making a livin'. So I gave away the plans."

Now Optimist Prams with and without names of sponsors number in the hundreds and, while through the efforts of the original organization they have spread throughout the United States and even abroad, they have remained as indigenous to the area as schooling mullet and diving pelicans.

The program of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club could well be a model for the country. Juniors have their own clubhouse and organization, from commodore to race committee. Except for a director-instructor paid by the parent organization, the youngsters are on their own. Children of members may join free—if passed by the Junior board of directors—and outsiders may qualify for $16 a year. This sum allows any interested boy or girl the opportunity of sailing a club-owned boat every day of the year. Between 9 and 15 years Prams are used, but older Juniors have at their disposal a fleet of nine Fish class sloops, venerable but reliable gaffrigged vessels identical to those on which I raced many years ago at the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans; or, if their parents are indulgent, their own boats in the hotter modern classes—Thistles, Flying Dutchmen, Jet 14s or Lightnings. The important point is that any aspiring youngster can sail.


The vital thing about the area is enjoyment of life and living. And there seems to be something for everybody all up and down the economic scale. For instance, since each of the countless waterways must be crossed by man-made structures, the sport of "bridge-fishing" has reached its greatest development. Almost every bridge over a tidal pass has its fishermen—and women—virtually around the clock. The Sunshine Skyway, spanning lower Tampa Bay and linking the St. Petersburg peninsula with the southern coastal cities, is sometimes called "the world's largest fishing hole." On a Sunday hundreds of anglers will line the lower approaches, standing almost shoulder to shoulder—and, what is more, catching fish. In the winter months speckled trout, grouper, bluefish, sheepshead, flounders and an occasional mackerel are to be had; in the summer most of these, plus channel bass, cobia, king mackerel, drumfish, amberjack and even an errant shark.

In addition to the bridges over the longer open stretches of water are the causeways, where a ribbon of land has been pumped up from the bottom. The road runs down the center, but off to both sides is an almost continuous shelving beach of hard white sand. Automobiles can drive to the water's edge almost anywhere along the three main roads spanning Tampa Bay proper and the numerous lesser causeways leading to the "beaches"—the offshore fringing islands. Picnic baskets are opened, the smaller children splash in the shallows, mama swims, junior launches the outboard and takes sister water-skiing, papa begins hopefully casting into deeper water, grandma wades and looks for shells, so everybody is having fun on the water except grandpa—who is back in St. Pete playing ball.

While every form of floating contrivance is to be seen, the outboard-powered boat is almost universal. Red Marston, outdoor editor of the St. Petersburg Times, estimates one out of three houses in Manatee County has an outboard rig on a trailer in the side yard, ready to take off at a moment's notice. The only argument I heard called his estimate low. With launching ramps almost everywhere—either natural or man-made, often provided by the towns—there is as much reason to own a boat as a car. In fact, one is almost an extension of the usefulness of the other.

For those anglers who prefer open water there are many vessels available for charter, either large party boats which take out passengers on a per head basis for a day, anchored over a likely hole, or sport fishermen for individual charter. In summer the whole of Tampa Bay swarms with tarpon; during the last Annual Round-Up in June more than 300 were entered for prizes. Recently sailfish have been added to the list of finned quarry, having been located 12 to 15 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

The greatest battle of the fisherman is against the real-estate developer, who buys bottom land from the state, fills it and sells lots to those who came to visit but decided to stay. Every fill not only decreases the navigable area but destroys a shallow nursery ground for small fish. To counteract this, artificial reefs are being established. One was created by sinking a derelict cruiser near an already sunken barge, and adding a couple of automobile bodies. "Right away little fish moved in," said Red Marston, "and soon the big ones followed: grouper, amberjack, cobia and then barracuda and shark—the whole range of nature duplicated simply by giving the fry a chance to develop." Recently Tampa sportsmen, at their own expense, dumped 60 automobile bodies in the lower bay off the ship channel, and now maintain a buoy. It is hoped this will encourage state projects of a similar nature, along with a tighter policy on allowing fills.


The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater triangle claims to be the fastest-growing section of Florida, a state whose population is expanding at an estimated 533 new faces a day. Business is flourishing, with no labor problem. "Put industry where people want to live," is the motto of local boosters, who see the Mangrove Coast becoming the Los Angeles of the East, with heavy industry developing around the deep-water ports of Tampa and light industry nearer St. Petersburg, which has an avowed aversion to belching chimneys. A newly arrived company in a highly competitive program requiring scarce engineers was flooded with applications from all over the United States.

The desire of people to live in the area has interesting sidelights. Unfortunately, in common with the rest of Florida, there are parts where uglification seems to have been pursued as deliberately as a scorched earth policy. Garish motels, neon signs, drive-in restaurants, filling stations, curio shops, coy tearooms and concrete-block architecture in a dreary procession assail the traveler. Gidge Gandy, patriarch of Tampa Bay yachtsmen, said in bewailing the cutting-down of mangrove trees to make room for housing developments, "Man has never built anything pretty except a boat." This is, perhaps, an extreme viewpoint, and many residential areas—especially those bordering the lagoons of the offshore islands—are beautiful by any standards, with attractive and elaborate homes set in carefully manicured lawns and tropical shrubbery.

The trailer camp, too, has reached its ultimate flowering here. They exist by scores, reflecting every social and economic stratum. Some are veritable little cities, with all facilities. One of the most elaborate is the Lakeside Trailer Park on the gulf to Bay Highway near Clearwater. It is divided into streets, with numbered lots and mailboxes. Gone are the "tin-can tourists" of early trailering, at least in such establishments. The mobile homes have become immobile monsters, up to 50 feet long and 12 feet wide, wheels removed and permanently set into cement. They run to trellised porches and "Florida rooms," aluminum prefabricated lean-tos with tile flooring and jalousied windows. In one of these I glimpsed a maid in a starched white uniform busily arranging flowers.

Another corollary of so many people desiring to settle down is that the visitor has little feeling of being a tourist. Even waitresses, bartenders, motel operators and their usually omnivorous ilk have the attitude, "He may be living here like us someday." Friendliness and a wish to please seem universal and genuine. A tip is appreciated as a reciprocal gesture instead of divine right, nor does expectation of a reward seem to be the governing factor in service. Enthusiasm for the local scene also results in an extraordinary number of do-gooder and booster organizations, as evidenced by clusters of signs on many town approaches.

In this setting of basic American virtues it is somewhat surprising to find two entirely different cultures. Although both have adopted many of the traits of the neighboring communities, Tarpon Springs is thoroughly Greek and Ybor City as Spanish as Havana. In both, the mother tongue prevails, along with old country customs and cuisine.

Tarpon Springs mushroomed forth around 1905, when Greek sponge divers were introduced to work the beds of the Gulf of Mexico. With them came the design of the caiques, the high-bowed Greek vessels which had changed little through the centuries and which still line the quays. To dine at Pappas Restaurant is to pay a visit to Hellas. In it, looking out at the harbor and anchored fleet almost as in a Mediterranean village, I had one of the finest lunches of a lifetime. First, a combination of all the appetizers on the menu: Feta, a crumbly-textured, mild yet tangy white cheese; Calamata olives, small and jet-black, as wrinkled as any prune; Salonika peppers, tiny and green, more aromatic than incandescent (these all imported from Greece); plus local shrimp, celery and scallions. And, as the main course, a specialty of the house, Louis Pappas' Famous Greek Salad (price: $1.25). This imposing edifice is built of lettuce, slices of avocado, beets, celery, tomatoes, roka (a Greek species of watercress grown locally from imported seeds), green pepper, radishes, cucumbers and scallions. Based on a mound of potato salad, it is topped by strips of anchovy, Calamata olives and Feta cheese. "You should see a big salad," said the waitress at my exclamation when it arrived. "The chef makes them in one bowl for four or six or even 10 people."

Pappas has been discovered, as a glance at the clientele will reveal. Those who wish to visit a Greek fisherman's haunt which, at this writing, is still completely out of the orbit of visiting schoolteachers will find the Nick Lazaros Kavoulis coffee shop three blocks from the harbor on Athens Street. At tables scattered about a bare board floor men play cards, or gossip, or stare at the kerosene stove or through the wide doors into the sunshine. Paintings of ships—square-rigged vessels mostly but one sailing sponger—line the walls. Gay painted hulls are bright against sky and sea improbably blue, bluer even than the oldest remember the Aegean. The only thing sold is coffee. In a booth at the rear of the big room a kettle steams constantly. It rests in a thick iron frying pan filled with sand. When a customer appears, the proprietress puts finely ground coffee into a tiny brass pot, tall and slim, pinched in at the center almost like an hourglass. Filling it from the kettle and holding it by a long brass handle, she works it down and around in the sand until it begins to bubble and froth. During the entire process, only four English words are spoken: "Sweet or medium sweet?" The coffee is served in small white cups. As you drink, the thick brew leaves a dark, foamy ring around the inside, and black stains appear outside where drops run down. You sip, and time and the outer world of waving palms and neon signs becomes remote. For the 10¢ you have paid for the coffee you may remain as long as you desire. Here, in the Old World tradition, hurry has not penetrated.

The same is not true in Ybor City. Not only does the Latin temperament effervesce, but the two principal establishments—Las Novedades and Columbia, which bills itself as "The gem of Spanish restaurants"—are real production lines. The former can accommodate 1,000 patrons, the latter twice as many. Both are a maze of rooms opening into each other, all decorated in the true Spanish manner. The food is as authentic as the atmosphere.

Prices are in keeping with everything else in the area. "We must depend on our local patrons," explained Manuel Garcia Jr., owner of Las Novedades. "We can't raise prices a nickel for visitors without losing regular customers."

Ybor City was founded when Havana workers were lured across the Gulf Stream in an effort to break the Cuban monopoly on cigars. In its earliest days it was an outlying and separate entity, but now its streets link indistinguishably with the parent metropolis, Tampa. However, the city exists in fact as well as name, a topping of queso español on a community as American as apple pie. For, in many ways, Tampa is less Florida-modern than any other city in the area, perhaps because it is older as well as less dependent on pleasing tourists. Many tree-shaded residential streets could exist in any section of the country. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders embarked for San Juan Hill from Port Tampa, which has long been a thriving commercial port, backed by industry.


Tampa Bay has known much history. There is some evidence it was visited by Amerigo Vespucci in 1498, 14 years before the generally accepted date for the discovery of Florida by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1512. It has been furrowed by keels down the centuries, from Indian canoe through the entire gamut of the age of sail—high-sterned treasure galleons, frigates bristling with cannon, swift topsail schooners manned by bearded desperadoes, towering clippers from the trade routes of the world. And in their ghostly wakes sails the modern fleet, and the life of the area still centers on the body of water "where the Adelantado Hernando de Soto landed and owing to its extent there can enter a fleet of fleets," as Governor Olivera wrote the king of Spain in 1612.

Today the "fleet of fleets" is likely to be the gathering of yachts from all over the U.S.—this year there are entries from California and the Great Lakes as well as the entire Atlantic seaboard—participating in the race to Havana. The 284-mile event is the longest of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and also the oldest, stemming from 1930 when Gidge Gandy declared his 34-foot ketch Cynosure could beat Lew McMasters' 32-foot Sea Bird yawl Marelen II to Morro Castle. It ceased to be a private duel when the St. Petersburg Yacht Club undertook sponsorship and started a fleet of nine vessels. Since then, it has been sailed annually, except the war years of 1942 through 1945. In one way it is unique: the first 17 miles of the course are in Tampa Bay, and the Municipal Pier, the bordering shore to Pinellas Point and the Sunshine Skyway become a vast grandstand. No ocean race is seen by more spectators.

I must confess having a soft spot in my heart for Tampa Bay in general and the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in particular. Not only have I had more than my share of luck on several recent jaunts to Havana, but here I sailed my very first race many more years ago than I care to count. I not only originally experienced the tension of a close start and the taste of salt spray in these historic waters, but was introduced to the awesome speech employed by seafaring men, being enjoined as part of the crew in no uncertain terms by Skipper Gidge Gandy to place my nether extremities—ischial tuberosities, in the more graceful language of De Maupassant—farther to windward and farther forward. A good lesson, which I have never forgotten.


The St. Petersburg Yacht Club is a large organization by any standards, with 1,750 active members, a waiting list of 200 (arriving boat owners automatically go to the top of the list) and 11 Juniors. Although there are now more nonsailing than sailing people on the roster, the salty set consoles itself by the budget provided. Last year a whopping $44,504 was spent directly on yachting, not counting the entertainment of visiting sailors at cocktail parties and the like. I doubt if any club in the U.S. can match these figures. And sailing goes on year round. As Lew McMasters says, "We try to give the man with a boat a chance to use it." Small classes have almost continuous racing. From August to April there is a miniature of the Southern Circuit for local ocean racers between various ports in the bay and gulf. Since Tampa Bay is the largest body of landlocked salt water south of Pamlico Sound (230 square nautical miles, 88% of which is deeper than 6 feet) and enjoys an average wind velocity of 7.3 knots, to say nothing of such unbroken sunshine that one of the local papers gives away an edition free when the sun fails to appear, it can truly be called an almost ideal area for sailing.

Nor does St. Petersburg have a monopoly. The Davis Island Yacht Club at Tampa is extremely active. I looked in just as the Mid-Winter Flying Dutchman Championships had been concluded, with a Mangrove Coast skipper taking the top prize. It is a small but enthusiastic organization, perfectly situated at the end of a long peninsula whose curving arm forms a snug harbor. "Everybody here is a sailor," declared my guide, Mrs. Bruce Robbins, "and that's the way we're going to keep it—it's in the bylaws."


Off the southern end of the bay, in the wide Manatee River, there is a flowering hotbed of Optimist Prams. "Palmetto is a real nursery for skippers," said an acquaintance. "Our kids clean up." Proudly it is related that training and discipline are so good that when an entire fleet was overturned by a sudden squall there was no panicking or loss of gear or boat. Each child, accustomed to being in and on the water since infancy, stayed steadfastly by his ship until help arrived.

There are equally active yacht clubs at Clearwater and Tarpon Springs, so there will be no shortage of future competition.

And when the sailor has made port and wants to enjoy the shore for a while, he is not limited by a lack of sporting spectacles. Six major league ball clubs train and play exhibition games in the area covered by this account. There is horse racing at Sunshine Park, not the high-pressure, bet-a-million competition of the Goldcoast but a relaxed country-fair sort of racing, with a lake in the infield where jockeys waiting for mounts have been known to do some cane-pole fishing for bream and trout. There is greyhound coursing on the oldest established track in the U.S., and jai alai in a Tampa fronton. Three 18-hole championship golf courses are in St. Petersburg alone. There are tennis and lawn bowling and roque and—if you hang around long enough—shuffleboard. And, beyond that, as your arteries stay soft in the balmy air and you keep your reflexes by swimming in the vast Fountain of Youth Ponce de Leon did not realize he had discovered, you may eventually even become eligible for that grand old repository of rejuvenated enthusiasm, the Kids and the Kubs.











Courtney Campbell Parkway

























Point Pinellas

Sunshine Skyway












CLARK MILLS put youngsters under sail when he developed sturdy Optimist Pram.



Tampa Bay area, from Bradenton in the south to Tarpon Springs in the north, encompasses a vast amount of variegated water in the form of bays, bayous, rivers and sounds. Studded with yacht clubs, it has also gathered to itself ball clubs and ball parks, beaches and bridges where the fishing is bountiful and free, and innumerable other sports facilities ranging from a jai alai fronton to shuffleboard courts.
1. St. Petersburg Yacht Club
2. St. Petersburg Junior Yacht Club
3. Sunshine Boat Club
4. Davis Island Yacht Club
5. Clearwater Yacht Club
6. Tarpon Springs Yacht Club
7. Manatee River Boat Club
8. Bradenton Yacht Club
9. Gulfport Yacht Club
10. Pass-A-Grille Yacht Club
11. Philadelphia Phillies
12. Chicago White Sox
13. Cincinnati Reds
14. Detroit Tigers
15. New York Yankees
16. St. Louis Cardinals
17. Milwaukee Braves
18. Boston Red Sox