It was, perhaps, fitting that retired Bradenton dentist Dr. Bill King was the key celebrity on hand Sunday when the Manatee River Pram Fleet’s sparkling new Bishop Sailing Center celebrated its grand opening at the Bradenton Yacht Center on Snead Island in Palmetto.
Dr. King, who is actually president of the Manatee River Pram Fleet (MRPF), told the story about how his father, legendary Manatee County dentist Dr. Luther King, was the dentist of Manatee philanthropists Ned and Patty Bishop, sailing enthusiasts themselves, and coaxed the Bishops to help the MRPF put down its initial roots in the county in the early 1950s.
King’s story was just part of a festive day, which drew about 200 young sailors and their families, to honor the new center.
The MRPF consists of young Manatee sailors, both boys and girls, age 8 through high school, who have an interest in learning how to sail, first on roughly seven-foot boats called Optimists, or Optis, and later on larger, heavier sailboats of the 420 and Laser class, said John Foster, 420 and Laser coach.
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Those young sailors who, under Foster and Opti coaches Jake and Lisa Fath, show exceptional skill in MRPF summer camp are invited to be on the MRPF racing team and compete in regattas against youthful competitors in Sarasota, St. Petersburg and elsewhere, Foster said.
“It’s a great adventure for my boys,” said Bradenton’s Kathleen Molesky, whose sons, Harrison, 11, and Quinn, 7, both students at Wakeland Elementary School, are on the Manatee River Pram Fleet race team after attending MRPF sailing summer camp. “It’s a learning experience. It’s something they don’t get at school and it’s a lifelong sport that I think they will do forever.”
Building draws raves
Mathews Construction, a local firm, built the new Bishop Sailing Center using blueprints from Palmetto architect Gary Roberts.
“The Pram Fleet has diligently saved money for years,” said Pam Blalock, executive director of the MRPF. “So, we had cash to contribute a good portion and we had a private donor who contributed the rest.”
The fleet has a long-term land lease with the Bradenton Yacht Club, which is also eager for new Pram sailors to one day become members of their club, Blalock added.
Many who toured the new building Sunday were amazed by the high ceiling in the first floor Boat Storage Room, Blalock said.
“We have these high ceilings because if we get bad weather, which happens here in Florida, the kids can still learn something here, we can set up a boat here and rig it,” Blalock said. “We never had that opportunity before.”
“This is also where we set the boats up,” added Foster of the Boat Storage Room.
The building also has an upstairs classroom.
“That will also expand what we can do,” Blalock said. “We can take video of the kids sailing and take them upstairs and show them. They are all techie now so they really love that, to see themselves, what they did right and wrong and learn from that.”
Summer Sailing Camp
To celebrate the grand opening, boys and girls age 8 through high school are immediately eligible to join the MRPF’s Summer Sailing Club, Foster said.
“We cover what a boat is, how the sails work, the dynamics in class,” Foster said. “Then we go onto the water and put as much fun into that as we can.”
“Summer Camp is the core of everything we do,” Blalock said. “We recognize talented sailors over the summer and we ask them to come back at the end of the summer and try out for the race team, which operates the entire school year. We average about one regatta a month.”
Registration for the 2017 Summer Sailing Camp started Sunday and costs $225 per child for a two-week session.
“From the time they start till the end they will be in their own boats,” Blalock said. “It’s an exciting thing for them. ... We had about 150 young sailors last summer, but this year we are hoping for 200 with the new facilities.”
The Bradenton Yacht Club is private, but the MRPF is public and a non-profit organization.
Dr. Bill King’s story
About 70 years ago, according to family accounts, Manatee County philanthropists Edward “Ned” and Lillian “Patty” Bishop put their oral health in the hands of Dr. Luther King, Dr. Bill King’s father.
While he had the Bishops in his chair back in 1947, Dr. King would often talk about his 10-year-old son, Billy, and Billy’s friends, many of whom joined Billy in the MRPF.
Organizers of the Fleet, which had started in 1938 as the Manatee River Boat Club and became MRPF in the late 1950s, began on the Ninth Street West steps at the pier in Bradenton with a mission to build character and confidence in youth through making and sailing wood boats, King said.
Clark Mills designed and built one of the first prams for the Clearwater Optimist Club.
Eventually, Dr. Luther King asked the Bishops if they would make a financial contribution to the construction of a new shelter on the north side of the Manatee River to put about 40 prams, King said.
That structure affectionately became “The Shed,” built over a cut at the Bradenton Yacht Club and used from the late 1940s until Sunday.
Literally thousands of girls and boys from the MRPF used it to store and work on their prams.
The Shed was open Sunday so many in the crowd could pay their last respects. It is due to be torn down in a few days.
“There’s a lot of angst about that because everyone has a lot of memories about The Shed,” Blalock said. “It’s a charming, charming place that doesn’t look like much from the outside, but you open those double doors it’s kind of magic inside. I’m also sad, but we are proud and excited about our new building.”
If you go:
- What: Registration has begun for Manatee River Pram Fleet Summer Sailing Camp
- Who: Boys and girls age 8 through high school
- When: June 5-16, June 19-30, July 3-14 and July 17-28.
- Where: Bishop Sailing Center, 4307 Snead Island Road, Palmetto
- Cost: $225 per sailor
- Information: Call Lisa Fath at 941-962-9433 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Blalock at email@example.com.