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    Designer of boats, including pram, dies

    By CRAIG BASSE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- Clark W. "Clarkie" Mills, designer of the Optimist pram, a tiny boat that has given joy to kid sailors around the world, has died at 86.

    Mr. Mills, master builder of wooden boats from tugboats to the familiar pram, died Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2001) at Morton Plant Hospital, Clearwater.

    He designed the pram for the Clearwater Optimist Club more than half a century ago.

    The organization, unable to promote soap box derby racing because Pinellas County lacked the hills for the little homemade cars, decided to embark on a sailing program for youngsters.

    Familiar with soap box derby racers since childhood, Mr. Mills basically put a sail on a soap box design to race in the wind. They were about 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, with one sail. The bow and stern were square.

    His aim was to design a boat that was light, stable and simple -- something a child and parent could build in the garage.

    The catch: It had to cost less than $50.

    His first sketches were of skiffs with pointy noses. But every time, the cost of building one was higher than $50. Finally, he cut off the pointy bow and pared the cost to just under $50.

    Mr. Mills, often called Clarkie, expressed amusement over the looks of his most famous sailboat design, which he gave to the Optimist Club.

    "All that high-tech stuff has people wore out," the retired boat builder said in 1990. "They want to sail in a horse trough now."

    Thousands of children have learned to sail in his creation, also known as the Optimist dinghy and produced worldwide in fiberglass. Adults sail them, too.

    "They have such a good time that I am pretty happy that I had a part in it," Mr. Mills once said. "Just 'cause they look stupid don't mean nothin.' It sails like a dream."

    He later designed another inexpensive boat for more advanced sailors. Named the Windmill, it became an international racer for young and old.

    In one noteworthy departure from working with wood, Mr. Mills helped to complete construction of the Paper Tiger, a lightweight fiberglass yawl that won Southern Ocean Racing Conference championships in 1961 and 1962.

    It was the first SORC racer with a fiberglass hull. It withstood heavy seas while winning the titles.

    A native of Jackson, Mich., Mr. Mills came to this area at age 3. In World War II, he worked in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and the Panama Canal Zone Shipyard. He attended Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater. He was a member of the Clearwater Windjammers Club and the Clearwater Optimist Club.

    Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Helen M.; three sons, Berny M., Seminole, Daniel L., Mims, and Fred E., St. Petersburg; and six grandchildren.

    A graveside service will begin at 11 a.m. Monday at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park, 2860 Sunset Point Road, Clearwater.

    The family suggests memorial contributions to Meals on Wheels, 13650 Stoneybrook Drive, Clearwater, FL 33762.

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