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Clearwater boat builder earns Hall of Fame honors

Clark Mills will be inducted into the Sailing Hall of Fame this month.
Published Sep. 12, 2017

CLEARWATER — The year was 1947. A gallon of gas was 15 cents and the brand new car to put it in was $1,300. Here in Pinellas County, a population boom was happening, and with it, a need to better develop activities for family and children.

With the help of Clifford McKay, founder of the Clearwater Beach Rotary Club, members of the Clearwater Optimist Club approached boat builder Clark Mills to help.

They had an idea — a soap box derby of sorts. The catch was, since the Sunshine State didn't have enough hills, they wanted it on the water.

Mills, a father of four, made an offer to do what he did best — to design a boat, a small design easy enough for a family to build together in the garage.

The boat that he came up with, which cost the builder just $50 for materials, was made of three pieces of plywood and one simple sail. Its easy maneuvering caught on quick and soon "Opti'' pram kits were being shipped to families around the country.

Seventy years later, Mills' work has put thousands of children around the world on the water with more than 400,000 Optimist prams active in 120 countries. At the 2014 Olympics, 80 percent of the boat skippers were former Optimist pram sailers.

On Sept. 24, Mills who died in 2001, will be inducted posthumously into the National Sailing Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the New York Yacht Club's Harbour Court in Newport, Rhode Island.

This year, more than 95 nominations were received by the NSHOF from around the country, according to Lee Tawney, the organization's executive director. Past inductees include Ted Turner and Dennis Connor.

"Clark Mills got more kids on sailboats in the world than anybody else because of that Optimist pram,'' said Tawney. "There is no question of his impact not only in the U.S. but around the world.

Locally, sailors who worked on the nomination effort included champion racer Charley Morgan, founder of Morgan Yachts, Michael Jones, project manager at McKay Creek Boat Shop at Heritage Village, and Meade Gougeon, a part-time Floridian and boat builder, who was inducted with his brother, Jan, in 2015. He died about three weeks ago.

Jones, 65, remembers visiting Mills' business, Clearwater Bay Marine off Fort Harrison Avenue, as a teenager. "You couldn't be involved with boats and not know Clark Mills,'' he said.

Jones also stressed that many sailors became sailors because of Mills, including the Gougeon brothers.

"I'm sorry Meade did not live to see this project through. He worked hard on it,'' Jones said. "He liked to tell the story that he got introduced to boat building when he helped his brother build one from one of Clark Mills' kits.''

Don Heiser of Clearwater worked side-by-side with Mills for more than 25 years at Clearwater Bay Marine and says the Hall of Fame honor is well-deserved.

"He designed (the pram) in a way that a father and son could build it together,'' said Heiser, 90. "He believed in that idea. It was important to him.''

And although Mills never reaped any financial benefits from the design, Heiser believed he was pleased "with the way the Opti turned out,'' he said. "He did not want money from the Optimist Club. He always said he did it for the kids. I remember one time sitting with him near Clearwater Bay, and he said, 'You know, it just feels good seeing people go by in boats that you know you created.''

For those interested in seeing some of Clark Mills' work, Heritage Village in Largo, in 2012, created the McKay Creek Boat Shop, patterned after the boat shops that lined Florida's westcoast during Mills' era as a boat builder. The idea for the boat shop came after one of Mills' childhood friends donated a Snipe, a sail boat Mills built from juniper wood. Over the last five years, volunteers, including Jones, have ensured that Mills' legacy stays front and center.

"The focus of Clark Mills life was giving back, especially to kids, and you can see that (at Heritage Village),'' said Jones. "All the boats at Mckay Creek have a Clark Mills connection.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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