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Two men from an Indiana family came to play and stayed to work, but what a difference perspective makes.
By Adele Woodyard, Special to the Times
Published December 18, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS - At the shipyard he owns, Jim Leets, helps stow two leeboards, heavy boat stabilizers he has repaired, in a customer's SUV. Then Leets, 53, runs a hand over his crew cut, wipes sweat from his forehead, andscans his Marine Concepts work area.
A young man wields a sander next to a set of hull molds in the back. Small boat hulls rest on trailers lined inside the tall wire fence that surrounds the property. The hull that bears the name Black Pearl holds special meaning: It was one reason Leets "retired" to Florida from Indiana in 1999.
But the primary cause behind the move dates to 1982, when Leets' brother-in-law and fellow Hoosier, Ron Johnson, decided he was ready for a second career.
At the time, Johnson, 44, had been a production manager for 22 years ata large printing company. He wanted a change.
During a Clearwater vacation the year before, Johnson recalls, he fell in love with a sleek sailboat known as theSea Pearl 21.
The boat was manufactured locally by George Jefferson, founder of Marine Concepts. In 1982, just when Johnson wanted a change in his life, Jefferson was looking for an investor. It was a serendipitous meeting of desire and opportunity.
Johnson decided to leave his job in Floyd Knob, Ind., and move to Florida with wife, Sammye, to build boats. The boat Jefferson had designed had two masts, a flat bottom and the stabilizing underwater leeboards, which replaced the traditional centerboard. Just 21 feet long, this sailboat can easily be pulled up on a beach, making it a good choice for Florida's coastal waters.
Jefferson did the actual building, but Johnson brought more financing, business experience, advertising know-how and design ability to the new partnership.
In 1982 the men moved Marine Concepts from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs. Over the years, Johnson added improvements to the basic boat, including water ballast tanks and mast refinements. He also bought one of the boats, which he named the Black Pearl.
The company began creating a trimaran, a boat with three hulls. Both this and the original vessel were being shipped to buyers outside of the United States, including a charter company in the Bahamas.
In 1991 he and Jefferson dissolved their partnership, and by the end of that decade, Johnson was ready to retire to write novels.
Cue Jim Leets, Sammye's kid brother.
From the time Johnson had moved down to be co-owner of the boat yard, Leets had spent many vacations and holidays helping build Sea Pearls. It was a comfortable fit, said Leets: "I was always an outdoor person, hunting, fishing, while Ron is administrative."
Plus, Leets was also familiar with boats and the building trades: During the 28 years he worked as a chemical operator with the Colgate-Palmolive Co. in Indiana, he had practically rebuilt his Margaritaville, a 25-foot O'Day sailboat.
Nodding his head as if to confirm the rationale behind his move to the Tampa Bay area, Leets added, "Marine Concepts had been in the family for 20 years, and I wanted to keep it that way - keep Sea Pearl alive."
In the boat yardoffice, Leets offers his interviewer time as he toils over paperwork.
Financially, boat building is an up and down industry, and at this moment Leets has orders for two Sea Pearls. That means he'll soon be using his hands to work with the three molds from which each new vessel is created. The thought makes him smile.
As for Ron and Sammye Johnson, they keep in touch with their four daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Married 54 years this fall, they enjoy golf and traveling in their RV, "though the price of gas has slowed us down a bit."
After Ron's retirement they sold their 37-foot sailboat, but they have rented boats in the British Virgin Islands and Windward Islands.
A diagnosis of leukemia three years ago didn't sidetrack Johnson's desire to write. Author of Death on the Withlacoochee and Murder on the Withlacoochee, Johnson has now started working on a sailing story.
"I lost interest in my third book in the Withlacoochee series and put it aside to write Long Gone."
Adele Woodyard is a freelance writer living in Tarpon Springs.
[Last modified December 17, 2007, 03:25:16]