Art Mills stands by his 44-foot-long trawler in a Key West marina. Mills had pulled the boat out of the water to repair a defective depth finder while en route to Havana, Cuba, earlier this year. Photo by: Courtesy photo
August 5, 2017 11:31:45 PM
On a recent weekday afternoon, Art Mills parked his golf cart under one of the live oaks in front of the Main Street post office and went inside. The golf cart had a blue kayak strapped on top of it.
"It belongs to K.K. (Norris)," Art said, explaining the kayak. "I'm taking it to my house." The electric cart is Mills' preferred mode of ground transportation in town.
Mills lives on The Island in a house he bought from Harvey Seifert back in the early 1980s. His home fronts on the Tombigbee River and is adjacent to the lot that was the site of the Southernaire, the legendary nightclub where generations of young people went to dance, drink and fist fight.
In 1978, several years before he bought the house, Mills and business partner Roger Kibe transformed "The 'aire," as it was known, into a disco. Mills and Kibe opened "The Club" just after the release of "Saturday Night Fever." The Club, a much tamer beast than its predecessor, was a hit with area college students.
"All the stars lined up for that deal," Mills said.
As for Seifert, Mills said he used the money from the sale of his camp house to open a restaurant, Harvey's.
During his time as a night-club proprietor, Mills started taking flying lessons. In 1986, the week the state raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, Mills turned over his keys to The Club to his partner, rented his house to Marvin Cole and took a job flying DC-3s in the tropics.
For the next 15 years Mills would fly vacationers in the Caribbean, ferry car parts in a Learjet from Detroit to assembly plants in the States and Mexico and haul cut flowers from Latin America for East Coast florists.
While living in Miami, Mills bought a 44-foot trawler, docked it in a marina there and lived on it. He named the boat "Island Hunter."
Ten years ago, Mills began a five-year apprenticeship to become a tugboat captain.
"Here I was a 60-year-old deckhand out there with those kids," he said.
He's now a riverboat captain who has piloted tugboats on the Mississippi and the Intracoastal Waterway.
In the meantime, Mills brought the Island Hunter to the Columbus Marina and lived on it for four or five years. Eventually, Mills put the trawler in dry dock in Demopolis and moved back into his house.
Sometime last year, Mills started talking about going to Cuba with two of his boating buddies, Sid Imes (my brother) and Dudley Bearden.
"Obama had just removed all the restrictions and Trump was president elect," said Mills. "(I thought) we need to go down there before he (Trump) messes that up."
Mills got the Island Hunter out of storage, spent about a month getting the boat ready and, on Nov. 21, he and Imes set sail from Mills' backyard on The Island.
The first night they tied up in Aliceville, Alabama. "In the beginning, there was ice on the deck every morning," Mills said. The Island Hunter ran about 7 miles per hour and carried 800-gallons of fuel. The twin 100hp diesels got 2-1/2 to 3 mpg, Mills said.
Imes and Bearden tag-teamed the trip. In Mobile, Bearden relieved Imes. In Apalachicola, Florida, Imes returned and Bearden took a break. The only mechanical problem was a leak around the rudder mounts, a situation Mills remedied in Mobile.
Mills' wife Silvia Dimitrova joined him for part of the cruise down the west coast of Florida. They spent Christmas and New Year's in Key West. Lee Sanders, a friend, flew down for a visit in early January. Then, on Jan. 18, Mills and Bearden set off for Cuba. Ninety miles and 23 hours later they steered the Island Hunter into Havana's Mariel Hemingway Marina.
After a few days in Havana, Bearden flew home. Imes and Dimitrova flew in. After 20 days in Havana, Imes and Mills motored back to Florida where they put the Island Hunter in dry dock in Ft. Myers.
"It was like going back in time," Mills said of Havana. "The stores didn't have anything."
"You could get beefsteak, salad, rice and an ice-cold Miller Lite for $2," he said.
The sailors stayed on the trawler and took in the sights by day.
"It was the trip of a lifetime," Mills says of the adventure. "Going to Havana ... from my backyard ... with friends.
"We still even talk to each other after all that," he said.
Mills laughed, then thought about it for a moment.
"I think I could get 'em to go back again," he said.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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