Wes Wheeler assembled a dream team to design and construct a modern version of the world’s most famous sportfisherman, Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar.
The feeder road at this busy South Brooklyn intersection is crowded with gas stations, donut and coffee shops, a supermarket and whole lot of asphalt. Thousands of drivers blast by daily, Coney Island’s defunct, 250-foot-tall Parachute Jump looming down on their windshields. It’s a stop-and-fuel for those heading elsewhere.
I walk to the back of the market’s massive parking lot, through a narrow strip of overgrowth onto what appears to be an unremarkable elbow on Coney Island Creek. But to those in the know it’s hallowed ground, the spot where in 1934 the world’s most famous private vessel was built and launched for a literary lion.
Forward-thinking design and lucrative wartime contracts kept the Wheeler shipyard running for decades. But it was a modified version of their 38-foot Playmate ordered by Ernest Hemingway that forever cemented their place in boatbuilding lore. The original bill of sale lists the vessel at just under $7,500 with a slew of special fishy features. Factory installed options included: copper-lined, in-sole fishboxes; a plumbed livewell; a rolling pin on a lowered transom to boat heavy pelagics; four, 75-gallon fuel tanks for long excursions and a 4-cylinder Lycoming trolling motor to complement her big Chrysler powerplant. Pilar was to be painted on her transom.
Hemingway would later add a galvanized pipe marlin tower, outriggers and reportedly among the first fighting chairs built by Rybovich (some say it was a modified dentist’s chair). She’d ply the Miami-Bimini-Havana triangle for the next 15 or so years, during which Papa became an incalculable contributor to big-game sportfishing.
Years later, Wes Wheeler watched helplessly as the esteemed brand his grandfather and father built flatlined. The yard’s final incarnation in Toms River, New Jersey burned to the ground (along with several yachts) in 1963; they held on for a few more years before finally shuttering three years later. As an adult, Wheeler became the de facto family historian, and while pursuing another career looked after any archives that survived the fire. “For a time, we were seen to be the most progressive of all builders,” Wheeler recalled, “the Wheeler Yacht Company demise was always on my mind.”
It was a call from Hollywood that rekindled Wheeler’s interest in Pilar. Hilary Hemingway—Papa’s niece—had written a screenplay that was to be produced and directed by Andy Garcia, and they needed a vessel. Wheeler jumped into action. He recalled: “Pilar was on Hemingway’s [Cuba] property, sitting on his tennis court with a roof over it. Hilary and I were charged with authenticating it. We took measurements and declared it to be the original.”
The restored Wheeler 34-foot Playmate went to the studio (the movie experienced delays and is yet to be shot) and Wheeler went back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Pilar. “It was then that I got interested in reverse-engineering it. I brought all of the measurements to [yacht designer and naval architect] Bill Prince.”
To say Power & Motoryacht yacht design consultant Prince is enthusiastic about the project is an understatement. “Pilar is the most famous fishing boat in the world,” he said. “Wes wanted to rekindle the family brand and knew what he wanted—[he] needed an engineering firm to help realize it.” Prince added, “This boat is going to be an eye-popping showpiece.”
Wheeler chose Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine for the hull (“Hemingway never had it so good,” said Prince) but after seeing the level of interior work the custom yard has completed on both new builds and restorations, contracted them to complete the entire vessel. In an attempt to duplicate what his grandfather built all those years back, Wheeler decided to go with a cold-molded hull of mahogany with a Douglas fir keel and teak decks. The deckhouse will be mahogany as well.
Eric Stockinger, Pilar’s project manager in Brooklin spoke to me of the technical details—the hull will be vacuum-bagged and finished in a light fiberglass coat—but also of the honor of reproducing a custom, bespoke build with a storied lineage. “It’s such an entirely different build,” Stockinger said. “The fact that his grandfather designed the boat is really interesting.”
Progress on the hull moves along and interior plans are becoming finalized. Renderings show a high-end wood interior that echoes a 1930s commuter yacht, with laminated mahogany beams in the headliner and custom, surprise touches lifted from the Wheeler archives. Hull No. 1 will be built as an elegant cruiser; plans show another version rigged to fish with fishwells, a fighting chair, outriggers and a modern take on Hemingway’s utilitarian pipe marlin tower.
Stockinger and his team have a goal of retaining the interior’s throwback looks while stocking Pilar with the latest tech. The challenge is to integrate the systems in a hidden way, perhaps using an iPad to run C-Zone or a similar digital switching interface. The helm will get the same treatment, with cleverly concealed MFDs, readouts for the twin 380-hp Cummins QSBs and controls for ancillary equipment—of course, at the estimated 20-knot cruise they’ll still be in an optimal spot for the helmsman.
Pilar is on track for a mid-2020 commission and sea trials in Brooklin, followed by a summer launch and perhaps a trip on her own bottom to the fall boat shows as they undulate south from August’s Maine show onto Newport and fall’s Ft. Lauderdale boat show.
Both Prince and Wheeler made the observation that a classic like Pilar does not have an expiration date; it lives on in province and history not only for its stunning design but also for its association with Papa and as a sportfishing vanguard. It would be “fun to think about what the old man would think of the new Pilar,” Prince said. His words tumbled in my mind as I looked over the bend in the creek. They may have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” to quote Joni Mitchell, but what was done here will reverberate long after we are all gone.