The boat shop was constructed at Heritage Village to help tell the story of boating in Pinellas County. It's undergoing renovation to add more opportunities to hear and view the stories of the many purposes the surrounding water has and continues to have in our area.
From its Gulf of Mexico shores on the west and Tampa Bay on the east, making up an incredible 588 total miles of coastline shoreline, it’s no wonder that boating has always been important to the Pinellas County peninsula!
Rough and Remote
In its early days as part of Hillsborough County and without its own identity, the area remained a remote wilderness through the early 20th century.
Prior to the arrival of the Orange Belt railroad in 1889, overland transportation in Pinellas County consisted of rough and rutted trails. Travel on these primitive roads was slow and tedious, and the area was very remote. Consequently, trends in growth, transportation, and industrialization that happened earlier in other regions did not happen here until decades later.
Due to this area’s isolated nature, early residents settled near the coast and most transportation between coastal settlements occurred by boat until the early 1880s.
The Sea and Survival
The warm coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico served as a source for food and business.
Recreation and Relaxation
Not until the 19th century did bodies of water become places of rest, relaxation, and racing. The warm Gulf waters and Improvements in transportation drew vacationers and winter visitors alike, contributing to the booming tourist trade. Visitors began enjoying sport fishing, sailing, and other recreational maritime activities.
Together, these events, industries, and recreational activities pooled together to create a vibrant coastal community. In turn, the legacy and tradition of maritime culture are at the heart and soul of Pinellas County’s identity.
The Optimist Pram Story
Once there was a little boat built so kids could enjoy the art of sailing independently. The small sailboat, the Optimist Pram, is one of the most successful post-war era sailboats and has an unusual origin story.
No Hills, No Thrills
In 1947, the Clearwater Optimist Club sponsored a soapbox derby. However, due to the lack of hills in the terrain and the fact that the “car” took months to build, only minutes to race, and was never used again, local interest was very short lived.
Colonel Clifford McKay, one of the club’s members and dad of a soapbox derby participant, had an inspiration. Why not turn to one of the area’s most abundant resources – water – and hold an “orange crate derby” in the gentle bay? He had observed his son having a great time sailing and racing snipes with the Clearwater Yacht Club Snipe Fleet and thought it would be a great experience for all boys and girls. Just as the soapbox derby had sponsors who financed the cars and modest expenses, the boats could be paid for in the same way so that every child who wanted to sail could do so. He launched the idea with his fellow Optimist Club members. They liked it and asked him to explore it further.
The Building Project
Colonel McKay approached local boat builder Clark Mills with the proposed project: to build a boat “for $50 with two sheets of plywood and a bed-sheet sail.” Eagerly Mills agreed to the project and created design plans for the first Optimist Pram within a week. A few adjustments to the shape, size, and materials were made to keep the cost down and create a highly functioning sailboat. Mills built the first prototype pram in under two weeks.
Optimist Pram Specifications:
· Single mast sailboat
· One 35 square foot sail
· 77 pounds
· 7 feet, 9 inches long
· 3 feet, 8 inches wide
· Rectangular in shape with a blunt nose
The first pram was given a trial sail on August 14, 1947 in Clearwater Bay by Cliff McKay Jr., who declared the pram a great hit! Clark Mills brought the pram to the September club meeting as part of Colonel McKay’s pitch on the new design. The club embraced the little boat, and everything quickly proceeded from there. McKay suggested local business owners could sponsor boats for $50 each, with the business name painted on the side of each boat they sponsored. Fifteen sponsoring businesses signed up in the first week, including many Optimist Club members.
Races were held every Sunday afternoon, with children also being able to sail their boats on whatever additional days they wanted. Though the initial plan was designed for boys, within only six months from its start the Clearwater Optimist Club voted to include girls in the program, fulfilling Colonel McKay’s vision for this opportunity to be for all boys and girls.
Interest in sailing the Optimist Pram grew quickly, resulting in more Optimist Clubs sponsoring racing teams. By 1948 medals were awarded for weekly races. Monthly scores were totaled, and a trophy was awarded for the best score. The first “International Pram Regatta” was held in December, 1948.
The local fleet suffered a setback on April 20, 1949 when the pram storage shed caught on fire. Despite the efforts of the fire department and club members, all 29 prams were lost. The only prams that survived were the few that had been taken home for repair or paint touch ups.
Colonel McKay enlisted the help of the local radio station, WTAN. After news commentator Howard Hartley told the story of the fire and the heartbroken children who had lost their boats, support to rebuild the fleet came pouring in. In less than two hours the generosity of friends and business owners contributed enough dollars for 43 new boats. They also donated $6,000 in building materials for a new shed. Clark Mills worked tirelessly to build the new boats to get the young sailors back on the water.
A World of Difference
Meanwhile, the story of the community’s generosity and the enthusiastic boys and girls who sailed the prams were shared again and again. The tragedy of the fire turned into a positive springboard that launched the Pram on its worldwide journey. Since then, millions of boys and girls on six continents have sailed in Clark’s amazing little boats. The experience has broadened their horizons, increased their self-confidence, and changed their lives.