About the Designer, Clark Mills

Clark Mills died on December 11, 2001. His obituary is here.
Family Biography of Clark Mills (pdf) here.
For a story about his career in boat design click here.
For the article a "Master Florida Builder. ." click here.
Further links to other sites:
About the Clark Mills Regata

Clark Mills' Boat Designs for the West Coast of Florida
By Tom Mayers

These chapters are from a book that Tom Mayers was writing about Clark Mills. Though currently incomplete, he has hopes to finish it in the future.

Chapter 1 — Beginnings

Someone said that if they could have cut the top of Clarks' head open when he was a child and looked in there at his brain that they would have seen a bunch of little sailboats sailing around.

Clark's family moved to Clearwater Florida from Michigan when Clark was 3 years old. They moved to the countryside of the town where there were lots of orange groves and pine flatwoods. Clark said that it was a perfect place to be raised. He was born in 1915, so that in his first 15 years he would have seen Florida in a land boom time and then the great depression came in the early 1930s. This worldwide depression had a lot to do with the way Clark built boats and the way he looked at life.

As a small boy he was surrounded by water in the form of a large bay offshore of Clearwater, the great Gulf of Mexico off the barrier islands, and lots of small natural and man-made lakes. It was in the small fresh water lakes near the family property that he and his friends would swim and play.

About 1925, a big wind came either from a hurricane or something close to it. It was after this meteorological event that Clark began to find rolled up tin sheets on the ground in the surrounding woods. The tin was from signs put up by real estate agencies and landowners during the land boom over the previous 10 years. In the heavy wind the tin blew off the signs and caused them to roll up and to be scattered throughout the area.

Clark found that if he carefully straightened the sheets of metal out and used wood supports at the seams, a child with the tin, wood strips, nails, and a little roofing tar could make a small rectangular boat that floated. In recounting this story to me Clark could not let the irony of the situation slip by. He said, "I really didn't progress much in my design work, did I?"

These small rectangular tin boats provided much fun to the children as Clark began to understand how these boats worked. "For one thing," he said, "tin boats don't float when they are filled with water. They are probably still finding some of my early tin boats at the bottom of local lakes when they are doing current dredging projects."

Other boat facts must have appeared to the young builder. Sharp edges on the tin must have been responsible for a few bad cuts and scrapes. Wood strips with bad knots would not work as well as ones without bad knots. A certain size nail would be better than one just a little smaller or a little larger. Some wood was easier to work with and to nail into and was considerably lighter than other woods. Just how many kids fit in a boat before it sinks must have been just one of the many scientific experiments that were carried out.

Between 10 and 15 years of age, Clark had started building boats with tin and wood first, then built some wood and canvas kayaks, and then moved on up to wood boat construction.

There were other people building boats in the neighborhood that gave Clark some early ideas. The wood and canvas kayaks were light enough so that a child or two could carry them. They would have been more streamlined than the rectangular tin boats and would have been a lot easier to guide in the direction that the captain wanted to go. At the same time these small vessels would take Clark more places that a growing child might discover or want to discover. Clearwater bay shore waterfront beckoned. Clark said that he paddled all over the shore area. One day, while out paddling, he saw the "20 footers" racing. These sailboats were not a proper class but would race as one. Some boats were 18 feet and some were 22 feet. They all raced together. As Clark was paddling his canvas kayak, a "20 footer" with Horace Hamlin on it came by and invited Clark to sail. He did and that did it. From that point on Clark decided that he liked sailboats. He said, "It was just so much easier than paddling. You just had to sit there and you could let the wind do the work."

During these years he undertook the construction of several small wood boats for friends and neighbors. The price charged was sometimes less than the materials would cost. Clark said that he felt lucky to be able to build something. He said that the wood was usually cypress. The lumberyards had long boards that were wide enough that two boards together would make the side of a boat. The kids would carry the wood on their shoulders to the construction site. These early boats were skiff types and were made for poling, motoring, and sailing. He says that these early boats were enough of a success that he kept getting orders for more. As he got older he made one for himself. This 16-foot sailboat named "Seaweed" was a small skiff that proved an able boat. As a teenager this boat allowed him to impress a lot of friends and even made him some money by taking people out sailing for money to cover expenses.

Chapter 2 — The Optimist Pram

"There is something about somebody who builds a boat that people can go offshore in and come back safely that I have got to respect." — Clark Mills

To hear Clark tell it, he took an oath of poverty when he became a boat builder. He likens boat building to a religion. He was driven to build boats. He had to build boats. Even from his youngest memories, he was fascinated with boats, all kinds of boats. He remembers when he saw a toy wooden boat on a pond that he almost climbed out of the carriage to get to the toy wooden boat. He said that he just had to see it. He had to look at it. He had to see what it was made of, how it was made, and how it did what it did. He had to measure it with his mind. This religiosity in his life's work allowed him to be able to see things in his work as a wood boat builder and boat designer that most people are not allowed to see. Maybe it was the level of skill that he attained in the field that he chose for his life's work. Maybe it was the fact that he was such a kind man. He was always helpful mentally and physically to the people around him. But somehow he was allowed to see clearly. He saw what no one else was allowed to see quite so clearly. He saws boats. Not just any boats, but boats that he built for the area where he lived.

He saw the essence of the perfect boat, something that lead him in his life's work of building and designing boats in wood. You can see it in his eyes. He knows. If you think that I wax lyrical, you should hear Clark. He describes things so clearly. He is a skilled orator. He is so self-deprecating that someone not attuned to the subtle achievements that he has made could easily overlook him.

What accomplishment could warrant this praise? I am only trying to explain the obvious. Clark Mills of Clearwater, Florida designed the sailboat that is the most produced sailboat in the world. At last count more than 1/2 million Optimist Prams have been built throughout the world. No other designer can claim this distinction.

If you were to explain design genius, you would have to recognize usefulness and prolificacy as the main criteria. The fact that he was able to design this distinctive little rectangular boat was no mistake. It was no happenstance. It was a religious occurrence that we can all recognize as the culmination of Clarks life experiences. It is only in retrospect that we can make this claim, because to Clark this was just one of many successful boat projects. But this small boat stands out as the Mt. Everest of boat design: the most produced sailboat design. Come on, you other boat designers, here is the objective that you can all dream about. It was not achieved in Paris, London, or New York City. Clark spent his childhood and life in one of the most beautiful areas in the world. On a good day Clearwater Bay, Florida is as pretty as anywhere in the world. From talks with Clark it is clear that there were a lot more good days back when he was a boy. It is not that we don't have the good days anymore. It is more that we don't appreciate them as much as people used to. Sure, our bays have gotten more polluted and the skyline is not as beautiful and natural as it once was. Ugly concrete structures bulge out over sea-walled seams. The beautiful mangrove, long leaf pine, oak, and cabbage palm skyline is more broken now.

But more important than that is the fact that people have changed. They cannot see as clearly as people used to. The clearness has been occluded by the muck and mire of our current culture. With the diversions of cable TV and computers and the opulence that provides opportunity to travel and do a million other things, some of the subtler things in life are missed or even worse, not missed and lost. Yes, I am sure that you could see clearer back then. It was easier to focus on one thing and the essence of that thing so many years ago without the present day distractions. Time was not so important as it seems now.

You could say Clearwater Bay demanded the design of the pram. It dictated the design parameters of the pram. Above all things the pram had to be practical. The bay can teach you about being practical in a boat. You just have to be able to listen. First the pram had to be small enough that a child or some children could handle them both at sea and on land. Some days, when it was low tide, kids had to carry the prams a lot further as they walked over the grass flats that are periodically devoid of water. Yes, the pram was designed for children. That was the plan.

As Clark said, "the whole idea was thought up by better minds than mine." Although this tome is not meant to be a completely accurate history, I will try to pass some of it on as well as I can. The Clearwater Optimist Club was a social organization that promoted good things in the community. Because communities tend to worry about their kids, these people tried to figure out a way for the parents and children in the community to interact in a way that would strengthen the people and the community.

In other areas of the country, children and parents were participating in a sport called soap box derby racing. This soapbox was actually a small, child size, homemade car that would coast down a small hill and provide a large amount of fun and excitement with a small amount of risk. People would gather as spectators and an official would officiate and, under the rules, a winner would be the first one that crossed the finish line.

Someone took this idea and said, "Hey, we don't have a lot of hills here in Clearwater, but we do have a lot of water. Why don't we build boats instead of soapbox cars? The kids can race the boats around a course in the bay." So, the idea came to life and the question became: "What kind of boat design and what kind of parameters?" The parameters were what the bay and boat dictated and required. They were the physical side of the design problem. The vessel was designed to be sailed on Clearwater Bay in a scale that suits a small child ages 5 to 15, with an economic consideration that it not cost more than most families could afford, and it also had to be able to be built in a minimum amount of time by an inexperienced boat builder. The economic consideration decided on was $50.00 for a finished boat.

Clark Mills had been building boats for a living and took the challenge. He had designed several small sailboats and brought that experience to the plan. He understood how to use the new material that was called plywood. If you look at the elements of the design on the design merits, it belongs among the most clever design achievements of all time. Take 2 pieces of 1/4 inch 4 x 8 marine grade plywood and a small amount of shelf stock. Add some nails, screws, and glue. Take a little time and tender loving care and you have a boat that can be built easily. Add a few miscellaneous fittings and a sail and your child was ready to race.

In 1971 I was working with Lars Bergstrom in Sweden. Lasse, as his friends called him, was an accomplished sailboat businessperson. One of the products that he worked on was Windex the wind direction indicator. This wind indicator has become the most sold and is the best mechanical wind indicator in the world. One thing that Lasse did in these early days was to video tape his sailing experiences. The videos varied from Swedish and American sailboat races to wind tunnel tests on keel and mast shapes. At special occasions he would show the videos to sailing clubs. It was one of these occasions when I accompanied him to a Swedish yacht club about an hour or two south of Stockholm. When we entered the Yacht club, there was one of the shiniest Optimist Prams that I had ever seen sitting on a table with the mast and sails up in a manner that is usually reserved for a punch bowl. I even think that it had garnish around it in the form of potted plants. I don't remember what videos were shown, but I do remember how much interest there was in me when I told people gathered there that I knew Clark Mills, the original designer of the Optimist Pram. I knew Clark Mills because I sailed prams as a kid. Of course I didn't know him well, I had met him only a few times, but I assured them that I knew him to be a great man.

Chapter 3 — The Optimist Pram Continued

"It all happens under the waterline. If you haven't got it done there, it doesn't much matter what you do to the topside." — Clark Mills 2000

Clark says that he feels terrible about being best known for designing such an ugly boat. He said that he had in mind a small sharpie for the boat best suited to bay sailing and racing. He said that he puzzled about how to build the boat out of plywood for a total cost of under $50.00. One day while thinking about the problem, he came to the conclusion that, by cutting the bow off a sharpie design, he could build the boats out of 4x8 plywood. This would make the plywood easily available at the local lumber or material supply store. The plywood larger than 4x8 is difficult to obtain and is more expensive.

At the same time that the pram became popular there were many other sailing programs in the Tampa Bay area that were using other small boat designs for their kids sailing programs. Clark said that when "his kids" competed in races with other yacht clubs with different dinghy designs, they beat them. The Optimist Pram got a reputation for being first to finish in the small dinghy class. Clark said that in heavy air the Clearwater prams would fly by other designs that the Tampa clubs were using. The Tampa boats had a hard time going downwind in heavy air. They were either slower or turned over. If you have ever seen a well-sailed Optimist pram sailing downwind in a heavy breeze, you can realize how high-performance the design can be. The boats are easily capable of sustained surfing of over 10 knots of speed.

Clark told me that he was standing in his workshop with prams at various stages of completion stacked up when a man appeared at the door. The man asked him if he designed and built all of the small rectangular boats. Clark proudly said, "Yes." The man asked if Clark could make him one of those boats with the wood strips on the outside. Clark said that he thought that it would ruin the hydrodynamics of the pram and that it would not sail well at all like that. The man said that he didn't want to sail it. He wanted to mix plaster in it. So, Clark is kind of embarrassed that his most famous design looks like a rectangular box with a sail on it. He is really proud of the success that his little boat design has achieved and proud that millions of people have experienced sailing an Optimist pram. Clark has a good saying that sums up the phenomenon of the Optimist Pram: "Pretty is as pretty does in sailing." After all that the little Optimist Pram has done, it is beautiful.

Chapter 4 — The Windmill

"When I was asked to design a boat for pram sailors to graduate to, I thought about a fast sharpie." — Clark Mills

Clark said, "Sailors that graduate from the pram are going to be young teenagers. They are going to be tired of the pram and are going to want the most dangerous, go-fast thing that they can find. It will have to be able to out-sail the boats that already exist in the same size range." The Windmill is everything that Clark thought it needed to be. It was designed for two people and was light enough that it could be easily handled. It is strictly one design, meaning that only a jib and a main are allowed. A whisker pole can be used to help with the jib downwind. It's dagger board is a little deeper than most boats of its size, which contributes to the upwind performance. The boat is fitted with hiking straps to help control the heeling moment by moving crew weight outboard.

The Windmill is a shapely sharpie. It is narrow and has low freeboard compared to other sharpies of its size. The hull shape is one that easily will attain planning speeds of over 10 knots on a reach or downwind in heavy winds. The bottom is a modified "v" up forward to less of a "v" to flat back aft.

Clark gave me a half model of the first Windmill. If you look carefully you can tell that on the model there is a flat up forward on the bottom that is "v'd" on the Windmill. Clark said that he made the bottom flat up forward on the first test boat and it made an awful noise as it pounded in the small bay waves. He said that he quickly made the change to the "v" bow up forward and the boat has remained the same since he made that initial design adjustment.

Clark said, "I don't know if I ever told you about how we got started with the Windmills. They asked me to come over to the yacht club to give them a little bit of help in figuring out a good little boat for the graduating pram sailors. When a kid is 15, he is too big for the pram and they need to get him a bigger boat. The Snipe was a good $100.00 more than they could afford for every little kid. They kept talking about a bigger pram and this and that and another thing. I told them that they did not want another pram. What they want is the leanest, meanest, go to hell sailboat that they could get. After they get out of those prams they can sail anything. They are ready. Well, they thought about that. I think when you get into the bigger boat that you are going to find some adults that are going to be interested in that. So I went back to the shop and drew up a sharpie. It was a nice little sharpie. It sailed very well. But people didn't understand sharpies like they used to. When I was a little bitty boy there were a lot of sharpies around. They worked them. So I went back to the shop and I started studying a sharpie that I had built for a preacher that lived next door to me. It had a whole lot of dead rise in the bow, a real sharp-nosed boat that eased on back into a flat run. It sailed to beat the band. It was fast. I studied that and I thought that an amateur just is not going to be able to build that big dead-rise, they just will not know how to go about it and you cannot explain that to anybody either. On one boat it is a sort of cut and fit deal. You have got to sometimes cut a little out of the bow frames or round it up and glue a piece on it or something. Make it do right. There is a way to loft that but at that time we were dealing with amateurs. They liked the way that the pram was a homemade boat. They figured out that I could get them something out for a lot less money than a Snipe.

Well, I built the little boat. We had a man named Jack Law that had a little shop down in Clearwater. He was building prams by the dozens. He had an old Captain working for him. Captain Cherokee, before that, he worked over there steering a head boat, a grouper boat, a party boat. He was a little bitty guy. I don't think that he weighed but 120 pounds. He had great big ears, a big adams'-apple and a tremendous voice. He was a regular old "bull frog", he could pour it out. Well, he was kind of the public relations guy for Jack Law. Jack Law just wanted to stay there and play with those boats. Ed Wattley and I had one ready so we just sailed it on down to the Labor Day Race in Sarasota. Everybody looked at it and thought that it was something else, you know. They were in a bunch of boats that sort of resembled it. We didn't have very good sails, just only cotton sails, you know. We were sailing right by the other boats, no problem at all. They were getting kind of upset with us.

Well old Captain Cherokee got interested in the boat and told Jack about it. Jack said let's get one of them and go sailing. They bought one from me, I think. I don't know if they bought it from me or from somebody else. Anyway, Captain Cherokee borrowed my boat. He put it on top of his car and went to a race on Lake Santa Fe up around Gainesville. They were having a race. There were a bunch of old boats tied up to the dock, water logged Snipes and Lightnings, Pilot Class, and all kinds of big old boats. He said man there weren't any of them in the race once we put that Windmill over. The Windmill damn near lapped them. We had a little squall by the time we got around the first mark. "Boy", he said, "That boat runs like a jack rabbit". It really ran around that course. "It was just the dad gumedest boat that ever I was in." Well he had his two boys, 10 and 13 crewing and he was having fun. The best thing was he came by my shop Monday morning with the boat. He was full of glee. He had five checks for five boats, the whole price. I never made a flying horse guess at what it was going to come out at. We did all right, right away, you know. That was a start. The next thing you know some of the locals got a few Windmills. McMillen got into it and he wrote an article or two for different magazines. Another guy in Dunedin did too. He was a newspaper guy too. It started the class good, you know.

I had to laugh at old Jack law. He had that little old shop and ordered plywood by the great big truckload. He had one room just full of plywood the sizes that he needed. When he got ready to build the Windmills, he got more plywood and got rid of some prams. I told him to go get Francis Seavy. He is a good careful mechanic, and get him to build you a couple of jigs. I said that you are going to need some real good boat builders to get some speed on this. I said little ol' Ralph Hensen and Dicky Shermans would be a couple of good ones. Dicky Shermans was a big ol' boy from up here. I think that you and I went to see him one time. We went to talk with him one time. We were talking about building a mold like he did.

Well he came to work for Jack. I forget what Jack was paying them, just about Union wage. Ralph was strong on that, he wouldn't work for less than the Union wage. After about two weeks, they had three Windmills. Ol' big shot Jack Law, bless his heart, he was a good natured old boy, but he really aimed big and aimed high he came in and said "now fellows those are nice boats and I like them, I want to tell you something. I'm about to get a new deal. We have got to have some production. I want some boats. We have some good jigs. There are a couple of boys cutting parts out for you, and they just need very little cutting. He said, Ralph you and Dick are going to assemble boats and I will give you each $60.00 for every hull you get glued up.

Now you have never seen anything like a couple of cracker boys cut loose and nail up boats. The next morning they were there about 5:00. They were a couple of terrific workmen. I mean to tell ya, they could put together plywood boats faster than anybody ever seen. They came close to putting three boats a day out. Of course they didn't go home until 7:00 in the night. So they put in a long day. They were into the third boat when they left. All of the sudden the shop was full of Windmills. Ol' Jack comes in and says "Now fellas you've done and made me a damned fool. You took three weeks to build me a couple of boats. Now that I'm paying you a little bit, you got me so jammed up, I ain't got time to sell me any. I got to sell some boats before I can go buy some more material. So that slowed that deal up. But they made a pretty piece of money while they was at it. Ol' Jack ran a lot of businesses into the ground that way. He just wasn't a good businessman. Everybody loved him because he was the best fella you could ever know. He really stepped in it when he offered them $60.00 a piece. They were ready for him. I thought that was kind of interesting. That is just another little tale, I don't know if I told you about that or not."

There was an attempt to find the fastest hull form around 1980. A class called the Ultimate 30 Class had a short lifespan of only a few years. The idea was to find the fastest monohull design and sail plan with few restrictions. I went to the best custom boat builder in the area and saw their entry into the fastest 30-foot boat competition and it appeared to be a giant Windmill with trapezes and hiking racks. It was a huge narrow sharpie with a "v" up forward and a slight "v" aft. It was built out of foam core and carbon fiber and was said to have approached thirty miles an hour on a broad reach in heavy air. There were a variety of designs that attempted to be the fastest, but they all had that sharpie element of a flat bottom with a "v" forward and a sight "v" to flat aft. There is talk around the docks that a modified Windmill with a larger mast and more sail area with racks and trapezes could be a contender for the fastest boat of its size, even considering the latest fastest boats like the "49er."

Chapter 10 — Wood Boat Building

One day I told Clark that I was really impressed that he still had all his fingers. He said, "I was always just a little afraid."

Clark Mills was one of the best wood boatbuilders in the world. His work still astounds us. A half million Optimist prams are built to his design and his original building plan. The pram made in fiberglass is so close to the exact original dimensions that the modern Optimist pram is his concept and is kept under strict one-design control.

Clark says that some people just can't lay one board along side of another one. This statement will include 99% of the general population. He laid thousands of boards next to each other and fastened them into forms that people have used for years. When I first visited with Clark, he had me drive to an old covered storage shed and he showed me one of his early custom cruising sailboats made from wood. He said, "She is 50 years old and never properly maintained. What is wrong with that? With a little work she could be back in the water sailing."

Master FL Builder Mills Looks Back
By Jim Flannery
Staff Writer

This text was written by a newspaper reporter.

Clark Mills raised a hand, rough as sandpaper, and pointed out some of the more memorable way stations of his 73 years. They were all within a block or so of each other: the red brick schoolhouse of Fort Harrison Avenue, and the boat yard and white clapboard house down the hill on the edge of Clearwater Bay.

"I started school over there," said Mills, shifting easily into the role of tour guide and storyteller. "I bought the marina and lived in a house next door to it. And here's the funeral home, just waiting for me. I haven't gone very far, have I?"

Mills, one of Florida's master boatbuilders, has seldom strayed from Clearwater. He moved there with his family - his father was a successful Ohio grocer - when he was 3 years old. Clearwater was just awakening to the siren call of the Florida land boom. Many of its leading citizens would amass fortunes in real estate speculation, only to lose everything later in the crash.

The lesson was not lost on Mills. He passed up easy money for a lifelong apprenticeship as a boatbuilder and designer. Mills never stopped learning about his work, so he never grew tired of it.

"Each boat has its own special mystique," he said. "Every facet of it is just as interesting as it can be, right through lofting, fairing, lining up the planking. Every step of the production has to be just right, even the caulking.

"Then when you slide it into the water, it's almost better than sex. It's a wonderful feeling."

Mills conceived the Optimist pram, a practical, economical dinghy that has been a training boat for thousands of children around the world. He also designed the ultralight Windmill, a one-design for teens who have graduated from the pram and want "the fastest, most dangerous, go-faster-than-hell boat you can think of."

He designed the wooden pram in the early '50s for the Clearwater Optimist Club's youth program. His aim was to design a sailing boat, suitable for children, that even an unhandy father could build for less than $50.

The result was a square-bowed, flat-bottomed "little Sharpie… a dumb-looking boat, nothing beautiful to look at," Mills recalled. "But it sailed fast, and it was useful."

Mills also designed and built party fishing boats and sleek sailing yachts, a popular line of daysailers, and a 42-foot tugboat adapted for use as a motor-yacht. The yacht was built for a wealthy citrus grower - "an old Florida cracker," as Mills describes the friend - who preferred the look of a tug over the ostentation of a conventional yacht. He so admired its builder that he christened the tug Clark Mills.

Mills' latest project is designing a 13-foot catboat for his youngest son Fred, 29, who wants to build and sell them.

"It's slow-going, and he's an impatient man," said Mills, pushing an amorphous black ball cap back on his head.

Fred had learned that building a fiberglass hull-mold was not nearly as romantic as he had thought. He found the tedious hours of sanding and wallowing in resins distasteful. Mills wondered if his son's temperament might be ill suited to such an exacting job.

"I loved boats all my life," he said. "It always seemed to me a privilege to build one."

As a boy, he used to scavenge rolls of corrugated tin and fashion the curved metal into hulls, boarded up at the ends to keep the water out. Mills designed and built his first sophisticated craft, a canvas-hulled rowing shell, when he was 10 or 11.

"I didn't know the Irish had been building boats like that for hundreds of years," Mills said. "I thought I was pretty clever."

Mills worked in naval shipyards during World War II, and after the war opened his own boatyard, Clark Mills Boatworks, in a tumbledown tin shed in Dunedin, Near Clearwater.

In the '50s, he joined in partnership with Frank Levinson, twice the national Flying Dutchman champion and son of a well-to-do Indianapolis haberdasher, to buy Clearwater Bay Marine Ways.

The yard seldom employed more than a dozen people, but it took on surprisingly large boat building jobs: among others, a 52-foot auxiliary-powered ketch, two 65-foot catamaran party fishing boats, a 42-foot tug, a 31-foot John Alden-designed sloop, plus prams, Windmills and daysailers.

Though Mills' forte as a builder was in wood, his most successful design besides the pram was a 16-foot fiberglass sloop called the Com-Pac, built by Hutchins Yacht Corp. Mills designed the daysailer for a friend who wanted to build boats. The builder has sold nearly 3,000 of the 16-footers and expanded the line to include a 19, 23 and 27-footer, one of which Mills also designed.

Mills' royalty on the 16-footer is one free boat for every 1,000 built - a fair swap as far as Mills is concerned. He hasn't collected a nickel in royalties for either the Optimist dinghy or the Windmill. Both designs were charitable donations.