Poker regatta in Terra Ceia

Published on: April 19, 2017

Quiet Terra Ceia Island community to hold fun poker regatta


The normal quiet of the Terra Ceia Island community will be disturbed a bit on May 6 during the 14th annual Terra Ceia Kayak Poker Regatta.

Around 150 participants in kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and other types of non-motorized boats, will launch at 9:30 a.m., May 6, at Seabreeze Park, 55 Horseshoe Loop Road.

The Terra Ceia Island Village Improvement Association Hall was built in 1906, and the first meeting of the organization was held on Jan. 10, 1907.

“It’s such a very colorful event,” said Janet Thoreson, a 24-year resident of Terra Ceia, “with all the different color kayaks and canoes launching.

The kayakers will paddle across Terra Ceia and Miguel bays, along the mangrove shorelines, into Tampa Bay and back.

When they set off from the park, the participants receive one playing card, collect five more from boats anchored in the bays, then another when they return.

“It’s not a race, it’s a poker regatta,” said Tami Zonies, chairperson of the event. “May the best hand win.”

The poker run course is about 3 and one-half miles and will take about two hours, but when the kayakers return to Seabreeze Park, they will be treated to a cookout.

Zonies said there will be hamburgers and hot dogs, but the real treat will be the side dishes.

“Residents volunteer to bring their favorite side dishes,” she said.

Along with the day of fun and water activities, there will be prizes local businesses donated, for the $30 entry fee.

Participants also will receive a specially designed embroidered cap, which has become a collector’s item over the past 13 years.

“It’s just a fun day,” Zonies said. “It marks the end of the cool weather and start of summer.”

The Terra Ceia Island Village Improvement Association, or VIA, as the locals refer to it, is the sponsor of the regatta, one of the many fundraisers for the organization.

The Madira Bickel Mound State Archeological Site preserves the ceremonial mound of the indigenous people who inhabited Terra Ceia Island between 1,500 to 800 years ago.

The VIA, founded in May 1901, is the oldest continuous civic association in Florida.

The goal of the organization is to improve and beautify the community, and the monies they raise from the regatta and other fundraisers are used to maintain Seabreeze Park and the historic VIA Hall on Center Road.

The VIA owns Seabreeze Park, which has a picnic pavilion, cooking pavilion, boat launch and a new dock at the three-acre facility on Terra Ceia Bay.

The park also is the site of the largest annual VIA fundraiser, the Mullet Smoke-Off. This year’s event will be on Nov. 19.

Along with the judged contest of looking for the best smoked mullet in the area, the event is always a day filled with food, beer and wine, music, arts and crafts, and the famous Mullet Toss.

The funds raised are used to help maintain the VIA Hall, which was completed and occupied in January 1907.

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings, has a large auditorium with a stage and a kitchen.

 “Ten years ago we did the roof, ceiling and floors,” said Thoreson, who has been president of the VIA three times over the years and will serve in that office again in 2018.

She has lived on Terra Ceia Island for 24 years.

“Everything is new, but we kept the look as if original,” Thoreson said.

It was thought the name Terra Ceia came from the Spanish words meaning Heavenly Land, with Ceia being a misspelling of the Spanish word “cielo,” meaning sky, or heavens.

But according to the Terra Ceia Island VIA website, a military map from 1857 shows the area as “Terresilla” Island, pronouncing in Spanish the double “l” as a “y”.

Long before the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto camped on Terra Ceia Island in 1539, the indigenous peoples of the island lived there between 1,500 to 800 years ago.

Evidence of their community are the numerous shell mounds found around the island, with a good example found at the Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site.

The post office on Terra Ceia Island is one of many historical buildings in the community.

The area had several Spanish fish camps before the first settlers, Joseph and Julia Atzeroth, and their 3-year-old daughter Eliza, came to Terra Ceia Island in 1843.

The warm climate and the prospect of a 160-acre land grant from the United States government under the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 soon drew other settlers, and a prosperous farming community grew.

By the 1880s, steamships were picking up produce from Terra Ceia Island docks for transport to Tampa and other major transportation hubs.

The farming was so successful that in the early 1900s the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line railroads built spurs to the island for shipping the produce to farther destinations, the website noted.

Some commercial farming continues, but the island has become a residential sanctuary, tucked behind busy U.S. 19 and in the shadow of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Life on Terra Ceia Island runs at a slower pace.

Zonies said she and her husband, Bob, found this “Heavenly Land” when they were boating out in the bay.

“We were looking for a place close to where Bob worked in Palmetto at the time,” she said.

They moved to Terra Ceia Island in 1995 from Sarasota.

“We love it here,” Tami Zonies said. “It’s old Florida.”

The participants of the Terra Ceia Island Poker Regatta were given hats over the past 13 years, and they have become somewhat a collector’s item.

And the residents work to keep that “Old Florida” character.

In the early 2000s, developers planned to build more than 30 housing units on the island, and the residents organized to get concessions in the plan that fit the community.

That development was never constructed, but another developer has recently announced plans to build 15 houses on the property.

“We don’t want to change our way of life,” Zonies said.

For more information on Terra Ceia Island or to register for the Poker Regatta, visit