St. Pete and Dunedin, Florida: Toasting Clark Mills – Father of the Optimist Pram Sailboat

In January and February 2019 we spent almost a month wandering through Florida, making stops in two national parks, half a dozen state parks, and the cities of White Springs, Micanopy, Cedar Key, Tampa/St. Petersburg metro, Sarasota, The Keys, Miami, Mount Dora, and dozens more towns along the way. 

Picking up where we left off in Cedar Key

January 2019
St. Petersburg/Clearwater Metro (Largo & Dunedin)

Little did we know that a couple of planned stops in the St. Pete metro area would evolve into a celebration of a man whom I never knew… A man whose contributions to the sailing world cannot be understated. Two days after our arrival on the Pinellas Peninsula, we will come to believe that kismet that led us this particular place, on this particular weekend.

McKay Creek Boat Shop

We head south to the McKay Creek Boat Shop on the grounds of Pinellas County Heritage Village in Largo. A small exhibit built to commemorate the history of sailing in Pinellas County, the boat shop’s singular focus is on four classes of wooden sailboats by local designer/boatbuilder Clark (“Clarkie”) Mills.

Mckay Creek Boat Shop in Largo, Florida

Clark Mills’ most notable class design is his Optimist Pram, lovingly nicknamed the“Opti”. Since Clark Mills built the first Opti in 1947, hundreds of thousands of children throughout the world (and a few adults too) have learned to sail in these wee boats. An estimated 400,000 Optis are currently actively sailed in 120 countries.

The idea for the Optimist Pram was conceived by Major Clifford A. McKay, who – inspired by the Soapbox Derby – wished for a boat design simple and inexpensive enough that a father could build it in his garage with his son. McKay entrusted Clark Mills with the design and construction of the first boat, with the following stipulations:

  • The materials must cost less than $50
  • The boat should be built with two sheets of 4×8 foot plywood
  • The sail should be made from a bedsheet (this stipulation was, of course, dropped)

Supported by sponsorship from local businesses and contributions from the local community, the Opti was key in the development of Pinellas County youth sailing programs. As word of the success of the Florida Opti dinghy fleets spread, over the next two decades the class became quite popular throughout the U.S. and internationally as well.

Mills donated the pram design and patent rights to the newly-formed Optimist Club, thus the dinghy became the “Optimist” Pram. Mills never made a penny in royalties.

Early Optimist Pram made by Clark Mills

Now as for the primary reason I wanted to visit this museum…

Before Clark Mills designed the Optimist Pram, he was already building some of the fastest Snipes sailboats in the world.

Exhibited at the McKay Creek Boat Shop is the beautiful, famous (fast!) snipe Honey, which Clark Mills built for his close friend Francis Seavy in 1947. Francis sailed Honey for 50 years, winning the U.S. national championship in 1951.

The McKay Creek Boat Shop’s construction was prompted by the family’s donation of Honey to the Pinellas County Heritage Village, with the stipulation that a space be built to house it (the Heritage Museum already had two other Clark Mills boats in storage). The McKay Creek Boat Shop is a replica built from the plans of one of Clark Mills’ old boat shops.

Honey the Snipe and a Sun Cat built by Clark Mills at the Mckay Creek Boat Shop in Pinellas County Florida

My father was also a friend of Francis Seavy’s, and sailed with him a number of times over the years. A magazine article exhibited at McKay Creek Boat Shop includes pictures of my father crewing for Francis on Honey.

As for why I’m so interested in Mills beautiful wooden Snipes: The final project of my father boatbuilder father Mike McLaughlin was the restoration of Clark Mills Snipe #8054, which he revived from a dry-rotted hull.

 

Dunedin Harbor

We reverse directions and drive north to Dunedin, where we walk around the bustling harbor area and hope to have a late lunch at the legendary Olde Bay Cafe and Dunedin Fish Market, though it’s just too crowded. Sad face.

Boats in Dunedin, Florida Harbor

Pelicans in Dunedin Harbor

Instead we check into our hotel for the night, the Best Western Plus Yacht Harbor Inn. At the center of the action in walkable downtown Dunedin, the hotel retains its mid century character. The individual front patios offer views of the harbor, and a large shared porch accessed by a back door from each room provides quieter views of the bay and undeveloped Caladesi Island.

Mid Century Best Western Plus Yacht Harbor Inn waterfront hotel in Dunedin Florida

View of the shore from Best Western Plus Yacht Harbor Inn hotel in Dunedin Florida

We eat a snack lunch out of the cooler and have a nice walk around downtown before our first stop for refreshment in Dunedin.

The Woodright Brewing Company

We continue our Clark Mills educational tour at the Woodright Brewing Company, which my husband Robert had read about prior to our trip. The Brewery’s design inspiration was the very building in which it is housed – an early Clark Mills boat shop. It was inside this shop that Mills built the first 12 Optimist Prams, which were delivered to the Dunedin Boat Club. The building has also been home to the brewery proprietors’ woodworking shop since they purchased the building from the Mills family in 1995. The history of the building and its evolution are an interesting read.

The building’s history is celebrated, from the wood file bar taps to the rough Opti sailboat hanging from the ceiling and the Opti plans and patents that decorate the walls. The small brewery has several intimate seating areas that include the bar, a few tables inside both downstairs and upstairs, outside on the porch, and in the beer garden. The brewery hosts weekly bluegrass concerts and also screens movies about music during the cooler months. Oh and the beer? So, so good!

The Woodwright Brewing Company in Dunedin, Florida

Old Optimist Pram inside The Woodwright Brewing Company in Dunedin, Florida

Old Optimist Pram plan drawings at The Woodwright Brewing Company in Dunedin, Florida

Good Beer and shooting vintage film cameras at The Woodwright Brewing Company in Dunedin, Florida - Minolta Autocord and Olympus OM-1

The Woodwright Brewing Company and Dunedin Woodright - Clark Mills old boat shop in Florida

Dunedin Woodright Clark Mills Boat Shop historic plaque

Classic Truck Woodright Brewing Company in Dunedin

Dunedin is one of my favorite areas on the Pinellas County Peninsula. The small city is filled with breweries, shops, and restaurants, and the outstanding Pinellas walking and biking trail runs right through downtown. We did not bring our bikes this trip, however during our last stay in Dunedin we biked 20 miles of the Pinellas trail. What an awesome urban path!

As with many other historic cities these days, Dunedin is seeing a lot of new condo construction, which I have mixed feelings about. That said, historic homes like the one pictured below are still the heart of the charming city.

Historic home in downtown Dunedin, Florida

During our last trip, we enjoyed a memorable meal at a Dunedin institution – Sam’s Stone Crab – however we are bummed to find out it had closed after several decades. We walk to the outskirts of downtown Dunedin in hopes to find the old place and hmmm…this building looks familiar…let’s check it out…

As we wander through the cute restaurant and to our table on the screened porch, we realize that this place used to be Sam’s! Now the Hog Island Fish Camp, the food, service, and atmosphere are just awesome. While researching links for this post, I found out that the restaurant’s proprietors are also the owner’s of the Olde Bay Cafe that I mentioned earlier. And get this – there are three Opti prams hanging from the ceiling above the bar. What!? The lattice of coincidence grows….

Optimist Prams at Hog Island Fish Camp in Dunedin, Florida
Photo courtesy of Yelp.com

But then the kicker! Two days later, we are walking around the downtown St. Pete waterfront after visiting the Dali museum, and I see a big group of tiny boats on the horizon. It’s an Opti regatta!

Optimist Pram Sailboats in South Yacht Basin, downtown St. Petersburg Florida

We watch the boats sail to shore as we walk a few blocks over to the St. Petersburg Sailing Center, with a good idea of what we will find…

Optimist Pram Sailboats Optis at St. Petersburg Sailing Center, downtown St. Pete Florida

McLaughlin Optis!

After my father sold McLaughlin Boat Works in the 1980’s, the company transitioned its focus from Snipes to Optimist Dinghies, and over the past three decades has developed a reputation for building some of the fastest Optis in the world.

McLaughlin Boat Works Optimist Prams at St. Petersburg Sailing Center, downtown St. Pete Florida

McLaughlin Boat Works Optimist Prams at St. Petersburg Sailing Center, downtown St. Pete Florida

Optimist Prams at St. Petersburg Sailing Center, downtown St. Pete Florida

And yet another surprise, there are a few restored Clark Mills Optis at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center too. Beauties!

Restored Clark Mills Optimist Prams at St. Petersburg Sailing Center, downtown St. Pete Florida

Although my father never lived in the St. Pete metro area, he was utterly connected to it for his entire sailing and boatbuilding career. In 1993, he had a boat delivery for the Snipe Midwinters regatta in Clearwater. I happened to be on spring break, and always eager for a road trip and one-on-one time with Dad, I went along for the ride. We lived through the “Storm of the Century” (called the “Blizzard of the Century” in parts north of Florida) at the Dunedin home of Francis and Naomi Seavy. It was an unexpected adventure to say the least.

My next trip to the St. Pete area – twenty years and one month later- coincidentally fell just after Francis’s passing. I should have gone to his memorial service but I didn’t, something I will always regret.

I suppose this post really celebrates not one, but three accomplished men, all of whom were beloved just as much for their kindness and humor as for their contributions to the sailing world. My heart is filled with joy in remembering the past, witnessing the present, and envisioning the future of the St. Pete area sailing community.

Curious about prior stops on our Winter 2019 Florida Road trip? Clickity click on the links below.

White Springs & Micanopy
Cross Creek & Island Grove
Cedar Key

 

6 Comments

    1. Thank you Cathy! Even though I don’t sail much anymore, it is such a part of my life growing up, so it was fun to be immersed in St. Pete’s sailing history. I somehow felt the presence of my Dad with me.

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