Sunday Favorites: New Beginning for Sailing School

Students of ready their boats for sailing on the dock of the old Manatee River Pram Fleet building.
Students of ready their boats for sailing on the dock of the old Manatee River Pram Fleet building.
Merab Favorite
SNEAD ISLAND — Last Sunday was the grand opening of the Bishop Sailing Center in Palmetto. The center, located adjacent to the Bradenton Yacht Club, will serve young sailors in the community, much like its predecessor, "the pram barn," did for generations.
 
The Bishop Sailing Center houses the Manatee River Pram Fleet (MRPF), a group of sailors ages 8 to 14 that begin on Optimist prams, also known as Optis, and progress to larger heavier sailboats like 420s and Lasers.
 
Students begin by taking classes in the summer and then have the option of joining the MRPF racing fleet, which competes in regattas year-round, if they display the skills necessary to do so during their initial training.
 
The concept is nothing new. The Manatee-based sailing school dates back to the 1930s; at one time it was considered the largest fleet in Florida.
 
In 1938, the Manatee River Boat Club (MRBC) was organized on the Ninth Street steps at the Bradenton pier. At that time, the club represented all ages and included all different types of boats. However, an invention in the 1940s changed the game for good.
 
In 1947, Clearwater resident Clark Mills decided to make a boat for children in his garage out of two pieces of plywood. He built his legendary prototype in a day and a half. The dimensions of the boat were determined by the size of the sheet of plywood. The square shape of the boat made it safe for children to race and sail. Originally, it was designed so that it could be built at home for under $50 with the help of a parent.
 
The prototype was an instant success, gaining popularity across Florida. The MRBC took notice, forming the Manatee River Pram Fleet in the late 1940s. A small shed was set aside to house the prams and have a place for a teaching program that showed local children the fundamentals of sailing.
 
Plans were obtained through the Clearwater Optimist Club at $2.50 each and Manatee resident Harold "Pappy" Stoehrer, became regatta chairman when he built three boats to start the organization.
 
Several local merchants sponsored the cost of the prams, which were $65.00 each unfinished. The price included a $15 insurance policy. Pappy required the children to be responsible for finishing the boats. The boys sanded and painted the wood while the girls made the sails. Each boat featured its sponsor's name which was hand-painted on the side of the pram in large print.
 
The MRBC's pram program consisted of experienced sailing instructors meeting each week to teach the children how to sail and race, how to take care of boats and equipment, and lessons in knot tying. The organization adopted Snooty the Manatee as their mascot, and designed a logo featuring him that they used on their sails. (Yes Snooty is that old).
 
As the fleet grew, a need for a structure to house the Optis developed. Local philanthropists Edward and Lillian Bishop donated funds for a shelter and set up a trust that would continue to fund the organization so it would be always be affordable for Manatee County youth.

On October 5, 1953 the MRBC dedicated the Pram Barn, also known as "The Shed" to the Pram Fleet.
Instead of being located at the MRBC on the pier in Bradenton, it would now be located on the Palmetto pier right on the water. There was a dedication regatta held that day and 56 prams participated. At that time it was the largest sailing race ever held in Florida.
 
During the 1970s, the Pram Barn was moved to Snead Island next to The Bradenton Yacht Club, which leased the organization a plot of land for $2 a year.
 
The shed was there ever since. I attended pram summer camp every year, as did my brother and some of my best friends. A friend of mine even got married there. We are just a few of the thousands of children who learned sailing inside the wooden walls of the old shed and we will remember them with fondness.
 
Last Sunday, residents were given the opportunity to say goodbye to the old shed. Despite its historical relevance it was too far gone to be salvaged. Although the old structure was demolished, the pram fleet lives on in its new home, named after its benefactors, and will continue to teach kids sailing for many years to come.
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Reader Comments
Nancy R Dean
MAR 12, 2017  •  Lovely story. As a child I lived on Lake Alfred in the small town by that same name in Polk County, FL. My dad with some help from me built a pram. Unfortunately, I never learned to tack well and often had to swim the boat ashore. Nice memory of my dad though.


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