Tribute to an Old Man
Two serendipitous (but very different) meetings with the most famous sportfishing vessel of all time—Hemingway’s Pilar.
The year was 1992, and I was in Cuba working on a magazine story about marinas and other aspects of the Cuban marine scene. Our smoking, dilapidated old Russian Lada rattle-trapped along the Via Blanca, a four-lane freeway that skirts Cuba’s north coast. We were coming from Matanzas back to Havana and my hotel there, the venerable Inglaterra. “Would you like to see Hemingway’s house, the Finca Viga…we will pass close by,” my communist minder asked. “It is a very good opportunity.”
We soon left the main highway, negotiated several narrow secondary roads in the midst of a sprawling Havana suburb, and finally turned right at a big concrete sign painted white: San Francisco de Paula. As we proceeded up a long, cracked, leafy driveway, a big, white-plaster house eventually appeared, surrounded by royal palms, mango trees, and frangipani. “No one is allowed to go inside,” my minder mentioned with a sly smile, “but we can go in…it is just as Hemingway left it.”
This indeed seemed to be the case. As the two of us made our way through the grand old place, it became increasingly clear that the long-departed inhabitants—Hemingway and his fourth and last wife Mary—had left much behind, apparently hurriedly. Next to a chair in the living room I spotted several ‘60s-vintage marine magazines lying on an end table, a discovery that quickly prompted a few questions. “So Pilar,” I asked, “Is she here? Or nearby? Can we see her?” Pilar, of course, was Hemingway’s 38-foot Wheeler, named for his second wife Pauline (her nickname Pilar also served as the name of a pivotal character in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and purchased for $7,455 (with $3,000 down) from Wheeler Shipyard, of Brooklyn, New York, in 1934.
My guide shook his head. “No, it is impossible, seor,” he said. “She is in need of great repair right now, and the Cuban people would not want you to see her. Sometime in the future, perhaps.” He then led me out onto a terrace and pointed down a hill to a grove of trees. A boat of some description was supported on concrete blocks down there. She was wrapped tightly and totally in gray canvas and bound with ropes. I remember quietly staring at her for a moment, considering the difficulties that preserving old wooden vessels in tropical climates typically present. And I remember feeling a little stunned as well.
Here, within a stone’s throw, was perhaps the most famous powerboat of all time, a vessel that had done more to popularize modern deep-sea sportfishing than any other in recorded history. And she was ignominiously perched, high and dry, on the weedy remains of what appeared to be a broken-down old tennis court. Given the impoverished state of the country, it seemed highly unlikely that the restoration my guide had implied earlier would take place any time soon. The Cuban people had little to eat, from what I could tell, let alone enough to buy paint, varnish, and all the other paraphernalia a restoration would entail.
Circumstances can change a whole lot in 18 years. Just a few months ago, as a consultant to an acquaintance of mine who was doing business in Cuba (see September 2010, “Fishing in the Land of Fidel”), I had a chance to visit Havana for a second time, not only to once again check out the Cuban marine scene but also to fish the Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament. Toward the end of the tourney, during the afternoon of a lay day, I hired a car and driver to take me out to the Finca so I could see what had become of Pilar since I’d last seen her. Serendipitously, the evening before, I’d attended a tournament-related program at the Marina Hemingway that was highlighted by several reverential readings of Hemingway’s work in Spanish and some video footage of him speaking (in Spanish) about Cuba (his adopted home for 20 years), the glories of boating in the Gulf Stream, and various aspects of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. At some point, one of the presenters had proudly enthused about Cuba’s restoration of Pilar, a project supported with only a little bit of expert consultation from the United States and, because of embargo-related politics, practically no American financial assistance at all.
A big, colorful tour bus was just pulling out of the parking lot when I arrived at the Finca. As I climbed the sandy knoll that supports one end of the now-refurbished tennis court, I could see the old Wheeler’s freshly painted ocher transom through the foliage, with her crisply lettered name: Pilar. Her hailing port read: Key West. And I could also see her mahogany-planked hull, seemingly in good repair, with red-lead-hued bottom paint, authentic, pirate-black enameled hull sides, and a bright-red boot stripe. Gone were the ropes, the canvas, the weeds, and the aura of forlorn neglect I’d experienced on my previous visit.
A couple of guards sat in folding chairs at the entrance of a raised walkway that partly circumnavigated the vessel. A huge roof of corrugated steel overhead offered shade and protection from the elements. “Buenos das,” I said, before going on to complement the quality of the restoration. Everything seemed quite authentic, except perhaps for the outriggers, which were flimsily secured and seemingly made of pine or some other cheap wood.
Pilar had begun her life as a stock boat, marketed by Wheeler as a 38-foot, twin-cabin “Playmate,” with a 70-hp Chrysler Crown gasoline engine reportedly capable of generating a cruise speed of 8 knots and a top speed of 16 knots. But Hemingway had specified some addendums (and would later specify a few more), thereby making her one of the first—if not the first—custom sportfishing vessels of the 20th century.
The list of all these extras was long and reportedly included a separate, straight-shaft Lycoming four-cylinder gasoline engine for trolling at 5 knots (with an economical fuel burn of 3 gph); flying bridge with steering/control station, bridge ladder, and bottle-stowage rack; and the set of outriggers and a fighting chair. This is perhaps the first ladder-back model ever built by Rybovich, according to Mystic Seaport’s restoration specialist Dana Hewson, who’s visited Pilar twice over the past few years to make suggestions and recommendations. In addition, there was a livewell with valves for filling and emptying; extra fuel-carrying capacity in four, 75-gallon galvanized tanks; two copper-lined fishboxes in the cockpit sole; and a long wooden roller mounted across a cut-down transom to facilitate hauling big fish aboard.
“The exhibit will close soon,” one of the guards announced at length, pointing at his watch. I leaned on the walkway’s railing for a moment and gave the storied old Wheeler one last look. Yeah, her outriggers did not seem original. And, oddly enough, there was only a single three-bladed prop evident beneath her broad counter, a state of affairs that made me wonder whether the Lycoming had actually had a separate drivetrain as is indicated on the bill of sale for the boat or been merely geared into the main shaft for trolling use.
But man, was she pretty! In fact, she was so darn pretty I could almost see her as she’d been in days gone by, charging along dutifully, against the cobalt blue of the Gulf Stream. Her restoration was as much a tribute to the old man who’d loved her as it was to the Cuban people who’d loved him enough to bring her back to life.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.