Commissioner-Charles-Justice-web
Charles Justice
Pinellas County Commission Chairman

I’ll bet you didn’t know that a simple little boat designed and built here in Clearwater 70 years ago changed the sport of sailing forever.

It’s a fascinating piece of Pinellas County history that my guest Michael Jones shared at a recent Board of County Commissioners meeting. I invited Mr. Jones as part of a new segment we’re calling #purepinellas. During each regular meeting this year, we’ll devote a few minutes to an interesting story about our history or a citizen with a unique background.

Mr. Jones is a volunteer at Heritage Village, our wonderful 21-acre living history museum that features some of Pinellas County’s most historic buildings. One of the buildings on the campus is relatively new. The McKay Creek Boat Shop opened in 2015 to celebrate the maritime history of Pinellas County and feature wooden boats crafted by Tampa Bay area boat builders.

A former boat builder himself, Mr. Jones told the story of the late Clark Mills and a famous little boat he would create. In 1947, World War II veteran Major Clifford McKay approached Mills about taking the soapbox derby concept that was so popular elsewhere in the country and giving it a Florida twist. Nobody was rolling down hills in Pinellas County, so Major McKay proposed that Mills design a boat that a father and son could build for $50 and go out and sail. Mills went to work and came up a pram that could be formed with 8-foot sheets of plywood.

McKay and Mills went to the Clearwater Optimist Club and other community sponsors and secured the funding to build a fleet of the boxy little boats. Eventually, Dunedin, St. Petersburg and even Sarasota built their own fleets. In 1958, Alex Damgaard took one of the “Optimist Pram” boats home with him to his native Denmark. The boat was modified and renamed the International Optimist Dinghy.

It would be hard to over-state the impact this little boat has had on the world of sailing, Mr. Jones told us during his presentation. For example, in the 2012 Olympics, 80 percent of the competing sailors learned to sail on the Optimist. Today, there are more than 400,000 Optimists sailing in 120 countries. That doesn’t count the ones that are unregistered and sitting in someone’s backyard. At least 30 builders worldwide are producing the boats for sailors between the ages of 8 and 15.

Clark Mills was inducted in the National Sailing Hall of fame in 2017, some 16 years after his death. He designed or built several other boats out of his shop in Dunedin, including Snipes, Lightnings, Windmills, the Sun Cat and the Com-Pac sloop. In fact, the impetus for building the boathouse was a wooden snipe Mills built for sailor friend Francis Seavey called Honey. That creation was raced for 40 years and won dozens of regattas in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.

Several years ago, Seavy’s nephew, Gene Fleming of Dunedin, sought to donate the historic boat to Heritage Village. Since there was no building on the campus to house it, Fleming approached the Pinellas County Historical society about raising funds for a boathouse. More than $80,000 was raised, and the boathouse, designed after Mills’ original shop in Dunedin, was designed and built.

How cool is it that so many people around the world have learned to sail on a boat that was designed right here in Pinellas County? That’s about as #purepinellas as it gets.

Plenty of great information about Heritage Village can be found here: http://www.pinellascounty.org/heritage/. As always, if you have questions or comments, you can reach me at (727) 464-3363 or cjustice@pinellascounty.org.