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In order to appreciate the area some geographic comprehension is required but, unfortunately, it is not easy to define, nor is there a handy label. The "Mangrove Coast" some call it, from the trees which line the shore anywhere that man has not fought the battle with nature; much of the coastal land is the work of this tough saltwater growth, whose intertwining roots caught and held drifting sand, gradually building up above the high-water mark, until birds and vegetation could add humus. The chamber of commerce tag is the "Sun-coast," differentiating it from the "Goldcoast" across the peninsula—itself a rather revealing distinction.
To me, although the vaguely heart-shaped Tampa Bay is the heart of the section, as an entity it extends from Tarpon Springs on the north to the Manatee River ports of Palmetto and Bradenton on the south; from the fringing islands along the Gulf of Mexico on the west to the shoal, mangrove-lined creeks of Hillsboro Bay to the east. It is low, flat country, nowhere many feet above the highest spring tides, tending to be bare except where cultivated. In some respects it resembles the ridge country of northern Florida; there are oaks festooned with trailing Spanish moss, and stands of pine trees almost like Alabama and Georgia. But also it combines the vegetation of the Everglades and southernmost peninsula. There are palms and casuarinas, flowering hibiscus and gardenia and saw grass—and the ever-present mangrove. Everywhere there are vistas of water, so that it is hard to say whether it is water bounded by land or land encompassed by water. Off the main bay are lesser bays and rivers, behind the coastal islands are long narrow sounds, off the sounds are bayous, and these end in innumerable trailing fingers.
Even on a chart it looks inviting. "Nineteen years ago I lived in Indianapolis," mused Doc Jennings one noon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "I had an old 42-foot schooner, a small practice, mighty little money and a new wife. I sailed Lake Michigan when I could. But I wanted to live close to the water and sail all year round. I had never been to Florida but, anyway, I bought the Coast and Geodetic Survey charts and studied them. Tampa Bay looked best of all. Then my wife became pregnant. It was a case of getting away then or never. So in November of 1940 we loaded aboard the schooner and came down the Mississippi and across the gulf. We found just what we wanted."
"And tell about your Johnny," suggested Vice Commodore Dick Winning.
Doc grinned. "He didn't have much choice; he had to be a sailor. He came up through the Junior program and last year won the National Thistle Class Championship."
Common to the area is a tremendous interest in developing young sailors. The first steps of toddlers are toward the water, to grasp a fishing pole is as natural to youngsters as the Babinski reflex, jib sheets are used for teething, and in many families the Optimist Pram has been substituted for a cradle.
Clark Mills developed the Optimist Pram in a tree-shaded little boatyard overlooking Clearwater Bay. He arrived from Michigan aged 2, and, in his words: "I don't know anything different from Florida—I'm a Cracker." But he knows and loves boats—and kids. "'Bout 10 years ago couple fellers from the Optimist Club asked me to dope out somethin' cheap for young'uns. I worked up an 8-foot job of plywood carrying 35 square feet of sail that anybody could build complete for around a hunnerd bucks, and these guys with the gift of gab sold 'em to the merchants in town. Either his kid or someone else's sailed the boat, and the feller who paid had the privilege of painting the name of his store on the side. If that gave kids a chance to get out on the water, I was for it, except it got so I was messing with 'em more than making a livin'. So I gave away the plans."
Now Optimist Prams with and without names of sponsors number in the hundreds and, while through the efforts of the original organization they have spread throughout the United States and even abroad, they have remained as indigenous to the area as schooling mullet and diving pelicans.
The program of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club could well be a model for the country. Juniors have their own clubhouse and organization, from commodore to race committee. Except for a director-instructor paid by the parent organization, the youngsters are on their own. Children of members may join free—if passed by the Junior board of directors—and outsiders may qualify for $16 a year. This sum allows any interested boy or girl the opportunity of sailing a club-owned boat every day of the year. Between 9 and 15 years Prams are used, but older Juniors have at their disposal a fleet of nine Fish class sloops, venerable but reliable gaffrigged vessels identical to those on which I raced many years ago at the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans; or, if their parents are indulgent, their own boats in the hotter modern classes—Thistles, Flying Dutchmen, Jet 14s or Lightnings. The important point is that any aspiring youngster can sail.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY