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Renaissance Men


Paul Brou

Miller Marine's Bimbo (left) and Mike Miller.

Mike Miller and his brother Bimbo don't mess much with advertising and PR. So I first got wind of their Florida Panhandle boatbuilding operation, Miller Marine, the way most other folks do. While dock-walking a high-end bastion of sportfishing like Palm Beach or Islamorada, I encountered a drop-dead-gorgeous battlewagon that somehow seemed to be both stylistically unique and subtly derivative. "What kinda boat's this?" I inquired of a tanned youngster who was diligently sluicing away the remains of a day's fishing from the cockpit. "Miller Marine builds 'em," the kid replied, "up in Panama City."

The info rang a bell. Last July, during a weigh-in at the Bay Point Billfish Invitational Tournament, a cast-of-thousands event held at Bay Point Marina in Panama City Beach each year, I'd beheld an equally gorgeous vessel friends said was locally built. Nobody'd known much more than that at the time. And, owing to middle-aged obliviousness perhaps, I'd simply forgotten about the whole dang thing until I'd stumbled across a sistership.

Obviously a little detective work in my home port of Panama City Beach was called for. So I began asking around Bay Point and some of the other local marinas and boatyards, and in the process came up with a phone number and some driving directions for Miller Marine, as well as a few stories about head honcho Mike Miller.

For starters I learned he and his brother are directly descended from one of Panama City's major seafaring families, a salty bunch if ever there was one. Bimbo (a.k.a. James), it seems, was comparatively reserved as a youngster. But Mike evinced a high-profile comedic flare from the get-go, a flare he took public as soon as he landed a job as a teenage deckhand with the Davis Queen Fleet, a flotilla of offshore party and charter boats owned by his grandfather, Capt. George W. Davis, and operated by a bunch of rough-and-ready uncles. Consider the following tale from veteran waterfronter Capt. Richard Holley:

"Mike and I were workin' together on the ol' Ocean Queen, and life onboard that boat was a total riot. You know, Mike's a ventriloquist, among other things, and a talented one. So one dark night there was a pile of folks onboard, and I was up in the wheelhouse watchin' TV—we were anchored out for the night—when all of a sudden here comes the whole crew bustin' in. ‘Cap...Cap,' they say, ‘you gotta see what Mike's doin' on the stern.' So back I go, and there's all these payin' customers with their eyes bugged out and their reels wound up, yellin', ‘Captain, the porpoises are talkin'! The porpoises are talkin'!' ‘Naw!' I says. ‘Yes indeed, captain,' says Mike, ‘It's unbelievable. Listen.' And just as a big ol' porpoise sticks his head outta the water, I hear, ‘Feed me! Feed me!' and every one of those jokers starts throwin' squid like there's no tomorrow. Then I hear, ‘Thank you! Thank you!' I mean, those guys were goin' wild, son!"

Although the fun-loving part of Mike's personality was substantial, he had an ambitious, hardworking nature as well. At the age of 19, he successfully sat for a 100-ton captain's license and began putting in long hours as a party boat skipper, spending his spare time helping his uncles design and build new vessels for the Davis Queen Fleet. Then, a few years later, as a charter captain with a growing interest in starting his own boatbuilding shop, he made road trips to North Carolina's Outer Banks as well as South Florida's Gold Coast, becoming friends with some of the true greats of old-time custom boatbuilding, among them Floridians like John Rybovich and Richard Garlington and North Carolinians like Will and Julian Guthrie, Warren O'Neill, and Omie Tillet. In 1986 he and his brother went into business together, establishing a boatyard and boatbuilding facility. Since then they've produced some 23 custom sportfishermen between 36 and 70 feet in length, each blending the stylish, broken-sheer good looks of a South Florida beauty with the fast, pugnacious, seaworthy running surfaces crafted by the Guthries, O'Neill, and Tillet.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.