Business is good these days. Miller Marine's garnering some serious sportfishing credibility along the Gulf Coast as well as the eastern seaboard, with numerous tournament appearances and a steadily evolving client base of super-wealthies, among them former Nascar chief executive Bill France, Jr. The queen of the fleet is currently the Miller 70, a beamy, high-powered battlewagon that for the first time in Miller's history sports a hull that's computer-drawn by Applied Concepts Unleashed of Stuart, Florida, an outfit that specializes in electronic modeling as well as packaged, computer-cut plywood jigs. "Yup, we're goin' high-tech with the 70," Mike explained during a recent visit I paid to Miller Marine's woodsy little spot on Fanning Bayou, just outside Panama City. "But not too high-tech," Bimbo clarified with a grin, while stroking the head of a young boatyard labrador named Hooks.
Prior to the 70, Miller's vessels were created from plans drawn to scale and transferred to a lofting board at full size. Station frames, buttock planks, and other components were cut from plywood using lofted templates and attached to a central strongback in a building shed, thus creating a skeleton-like jig, typically describing an upside-down hull or a right-side-up deck/superstructure. Foam panels (Miller switched from Airex to CoreCell some years back) were then temporarily attached to the outside of the jig using ring-type nails run through from inside. Once the foam was secure, its exterior was fiberglassed with woven fabrics and Reichcold Hydrex isopthalic resin. Post-cure, the semiformed hull or deck/superstructure was turned right-side up, secured within a receiving cradle (to nix deflection and twist), and cleared of all jig materials. Then the interior was glassed as well, thus forming a complete foam-cored component. Epoxy fairing compounds, longboards, and Awlgrip added the finishing touches.
Miller Marine's general manager Ray Whitfield (up top) and Bimbo (left in the cockpit) and Mike Miller (right), all aboard the 70. On the mezzanine are loyal boatyard labradors Haley and Hooks.
Electronic modeling changes only the beginning of the process. Instead of laboriously lofting a full-scale jig from a drawing board, Applied Concepts creates a 3D electronic model (with tweaks from Miller) and simply saves it to a computer disk. J&J Door Manufacturing, a small Panama City milling and cabinetry company, then interfaces the disks with its CNC (computer numeric controlled) router to cut the jig components. Once these are assembled, the boatbuilding steps that follow are virtually the same.
True boatbuilding mystique entails lots more than design technology and construction methods, of course. The new 70, for example, is a four-stateroom, four-head fishing machine with extra berths (for extra anglers) in the VIP, crew, and guest accommodations, a greased-lightning running bottom (with a sharp bow and relatively flat stern for stability), a lofty Bausch American tuna tower with fully rigged upper station, Murray Products helm and fighting chairs, and two big, walk-around 16V-2000 MTUs below decks that'll reportedly punch out a 38-knot cruise and a 42-knot top end.
This last point's a biggie. As I concluded a day's visit with the Miller brothers, they said they wanted to make something absolutely clear about the boats they build: "We're a custom operation—it's true," Mike explained. "But we'll only go so far with customization. We'll never sacrifice performance to a layout. Or aesthetics. Or anything else, for that matter!"
"But hey now, Mr. Bill," he added, directing a big grin towards a battered Igloo cooler on the office floor. "Git you a Coke for the drive home. Ice cold!"
An innocent offer?
Well, some of the more entertaining reminiscences I'd heard (and reheard) while doing preliminary detective work on Miller Marine had centered on Mike's penchant for putting big Panhandle rattlesnakes in coolers and then coaxing, "Now get yourself some o' them oysters in there, cuz. They're scrumptious!" Sure, everybody said the snakes were goners before Mike toggled them up with monofilament so they'd lunge as the lid swung up. But Hell! I ain't much into snakes, dead or alive!
"No," I replied, "Think I'll take a pass on the Coke, Mike. Thanks anyway."
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Applied Concepts Unleashed
While strolling through the shops and sheds of Miller Marine, I remarked upon a partially finished vessel in one of the building bays—she didn't look like a Miller. "You're right," Mike Miller said. "She's a Gillman 57 Enclosed Flybridge. We brought her over here from across town because of what happened."
Some months ago Panama City was stunned by the untimely death of 48-year-old Jeff Gillman (pictured), a much-liked and -admired boatbuilder who was shot and killed early one morning at his shop by a disgruntled subcontractor. Gillman, said Miller, was enjoying serious recognition as a creator of fine, seaworthy sportfishermen when the shooting occurred. "The family's havin' a real hard time of it right now, and the boat's sold," Miller added, "so we decided to help them finish and deliver her to the new owner."
Sometimes, when trouble comes, the very act of boatbuilding seems to engender familial-like bonds amongst rivals and competitors. And this is especially so, perhaps, amid the flatwood wastes of the Florida Panhandle.—B.P.
This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.