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Cruising With Papa


Ernest Hemingway’s boat was renown as a platform for the author’s fishing exploits, but she was in fact a “cabin cruiser” and a very capable one, with features that would be valued by the power cruisers of today. Pilar was her name, and she is about to make a comeback in the American imagination.

Pilar herself sits atop the tennis court of Hemingway’s old Finca Vigia just outside Havana, Cuba, an estate from long ago that has become a Hemingway museum. Over here, meanwhile, a beautifully restored 1934 Wheeler Playmate, plays Pilar in the upcoming movie Hemingway & Fuentes, which began filming in January. The film is part of a Hemingway revival that includes two recent movies, two non-fiction books about Hemingway and Pilar, and the release of many of the author’s private papers.

The new movie is about the friendship between Hemingway and his capable Cuban captain, Gregorio Fuentes, as well as their relationship to the boat herself. Pilar’s importance to the movie may be inferred from the $250,000 price tag for the Wheeler’s restoration and the moviemaker’s strict demands for authenticity. Anthony Hopkins plays Hemingway. Andy Garcia, who also directs the film, plays Fuentes. It’s being shot in an area of the Dominican Republic that closely resembles the north coast of Cuba.

Hemingway lived and worked during the formative years of recreational boating, a period during which the pastime (today, we call it the “boating lifestyle”) trickled down from the wealthy elite to the postwar generations of ordinary Americans. Pilar was the setting for many of Hemingway’s magazine articles and articles by others about him. The author’s adventures aboard Pilar inspired his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream and informed American attitudes toward boating in general.

To us, boats are an escape. They transport us to a wilder place where we establish deeper bonds with family and friends. The sea sets us free and purifies us. Then, of course, there’s fishing.

Only eight other boats, in my humble opinion, shine as brightly as Pilar in America’s nautical firmament. The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria make three. Add to those: Mayflower, USS Constitution, the schooner America, Joshua Slocum’s Spray, and JFK’s PT 109. Only Pilar and one of the eight “lives” today, Old Ironsides at her berth in Boston.

Hemingway purchased his 1934 Playmate new from the Wheeler Shipyard of Brooklyn, New York for $7,495 or about $120,000 in today’s dollars. Not a bad value, really, considering Pilar could cruise nearly as well as many comparably-sized boats today—any of which would cost much more.

“There are only two colors to paint a boat—black or white—and only a fool would paint a boat black,” Nathanael Herreshoff famously said. The legendary boat designer could not have anticipated Hemingway, however.

Hemingway was surely guilty of extreme foolishness in aspects of his personal life, but his choice of a black hull (for the tropics, no less!) is as likely the product of vanity or misplaced romanticism, given the otherwise good decisions he made for the boat. Pilar’s crew would suffer higher temperatures down below, and Pilar’s planking would be prone to shrinkage (as has already happened to restored Movie Pilar). Discomfort and impracticality be damned, Hemingway never backed down! Pilar has remained a black boat to this day.

His other choices are really quite good, especially for a guy who’d only been going to sea for six years, fishing from other people’s boats. First and foremost, he specifies a combo power plant, a Chrysler Crown 75hp engine and a 4-cylinder 40hp Lycoming “trolling motor.” “This motor is to be installed as a unit entirely independent of the main power plant, and all controls and instruments are to be at steering position,” Hemingway writes to Wheeler.

A trolling motor, yes, but terrific insight on Hemingway’s part about his chosen cruising grounds as well. Sea Tow did not exist in 1934, and to this day, much of the Bahamas and north coast of Cuba are lonely waters indeed. The Lycoming was a get-home engine, a must-have for any “single-screw” recreational vessel venturing beyond sight of land, then or now. Regardless of how mechanically well maintained an engine is, and regardless of how well a fuel system is devised, events beyond a skipper’s control can stop an engine at sea, and when that happens during a closing weather window, it can herald the undoing of captain and crew.

As if to prove the point, during Pilar’s first crossing to Cuba in July 1934, the water pump on the nearly new Chrysler failed, and the engine became so hot the paint peeled off it. Hemingway steered Pilar into Havana Harbor on the Lycoming.

Another wise decision was Hemingway’s specification of four 75-gallon fuel tanks. That gave Pilar a range of about 600 miles, further if you take into account the 100 gallons of gasoline Hemingway stored aboard in portable tanks. Range is an important component of any cruising vessel, and Pilar’s was impressive, particularly given her gasoline power plants. Pilar’s range is about the distance between Havana and Mobile, Alabama (which happen to be sister cities).

Let’s compare Pilar to one of the most popular power cruising brands of today, the Nordic Tug. The Nordic Tug 34, powered by a 260hp Yanmar, carries 205 gallons of diesel fuel and boasts a range of 500nm at 8 knots. The 39, powered by a 380hp Cummins diesel, carries 320 gallons of diesel fuel and will travel about 1,000nm at 8 knots. WOT is 18 knots. As you can see, Pilar’s performance falls comfortably between these two performance models, and positively shines compared to the 222-mile range of a contemporary 45-footer from Sea Ray.

Jim Moores, a master restorer of wood boats, took me out for a demonstration of Movie Pilar’s performance off Palm Beach. Moores prefers steering her from the “flybridge,” and invited me to join him as we began our return to the dock. It’s really only a prototype for today’s bridges, made of painted steel pipes, an automotive steering wheel, and basic levers for control. As the conversation turns to range and Pilar’s 300 gallons of gasoline, Moores makes a quip about Pilar being the equivalent of a floating bomb.

His comment inspires a mental image full of explosive possibilities: Fishing buddies drinking heavily, guns locked During our trial, Moores zips back and forth in front of the beach, going well over 15 knots, but Movie Pilar is light that day, and Moores says she is very weight sensitive. Although Movie Pilar is 34 feet compared to Pilar’s 38, their performance characteristics were probably similar. Doing the math, I would estimate Pilar would weigh an additional 5,000 lb., fully fueled and loaded with six people aboard. That pretty much guaranteed that Pilar usually moved through the water at 10 knots or less—just like most cruisers today.

Pilar is a good seaboat, but definitely needs man-handling. Jim Moores says it takes strength to steer Movie Pilar. The fine entry of the Wheeler boats suggest a tendency to bow-steer in following conditions, forcing the helmsman to wrestle her to course. But Hemingway was a famously powerful guy, having invented the technique of using brute strength to quickly bring gamefish to the boat so they could be landed before the sharks could begin ripping them apart. The technique was called “Hemingwaying” a fish. He would Hemingway the boat as well.

Charley Morgan, the great sailboat and (later in life) trawler designer, has long insisted that the ability to seek shelter is a key component in the definition of seaworthiness regarding cruising vessels. And the key to being able to seek shelter down island, Morgan says, is shallow draft. With a draft of 3-1/2 feet, Pilar was well suited to the Bahamas and the north coast of Cuba with its archipelagos of mangrove keys.

During his 35 years with Pilar, Hemingway visited Bimini in the Bahamas and cruised a 400nm swath of the Cuban north coast from Cayo Levisa, west of Havana, to the port of Nuevitas well to the east. Hemingway, and his family and friends would go for days, sometimes weeks at a time. In 1942 and 43, during his U-Boat patrols on behalf of the U.S. Navy, Hemingway headed east along the Old Bahama Channel for weeks on end, anchoring for the night in lee of small islands called cayos or keys. During these patrols, Hemingway had six or seven men with him and no head. The toilet had been removed to accommodate a state-of-the-art single sideband radio and a radio homing gear to get bearings to any U-Boats using their radios. Eight guys on a boat using the “bucket and chuck it” method for weeks. Lovely!

When we provision nowadays, it usually entails a foray to a warehouse outlet for bulk purchases and two or three forays to the supermarket. Hemingway in Cuba certainly had access to canned and dry goods, but his provisioning was far more rustic than anything most of us would consider today. Examining Pilar’s 1942 logbook, housed at the JFK Library in Boston, I came across this passage:

12 live chickens @ .75¢
2 live turkeys @ $2.50
1 pig @ $8.00
400 eggs @ 3¢
98 gallons of water
100 lb. of ice @ $7.20

At one remote cay, the log recorded that two large iguanas and doves were shot “for supper.” That, of course, was in addition to the inevitable harvest from the sea, which included snappers, barracudas, and yellowtail that day. The entry continues: “Ate the white turkey—one hen dead—other stock well—Cayo Cruz hot but fascinating place. Saw flocks of golden plover on really dry lagoon bed—also great blue and white herons. Saw iguanas besides those shot.”

The iguana population must have considered itself lucky that Hemingway did not shoot them all that day. Critics of Hemingway the sportsman, as opposed to Hemingway the novelist, claimed he was a “meat fisherman,” too concerned with quantity. Still, you have a feeling the Hemingway crew ate very well—and as PMM readers well know, meals assume a greater importance while under way than they ever do back at the house. Fuentes was not just a capable seaman and engineer, but he was also chef aboard Pilar, and hence his authority would have been unquestioned.

In their down time, Hemingway and his friends played poker in the cockpit, and pages of the log are devoted to keeping track of how much everyone owes each other. The alcohol consumption was prodigious.

In 1959, the Cuban revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. In 1961, Castro’s favorite author leaves Cuba forever. Hemingway, depressed and alcoholic, commits suicide by shotgun in July 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Mary Hemingway, his fourth wife, leaves Pilar to Fuentes, who eventually hands it over to “the Cuban people.” The boat is eventually hauled to where she lies today, an attraction viewed by tens of thousands of Cuban schoolchildren and tourists annually—hardly any of them Hemingway’s fellow countrymen due to the American government’s continuing refusal to let the general public travel to Cuba.

Don’t worry, when the travel ban is lifted, Pilar will still be there waiting for all of us. Museum Director Ada Rosa Alfonso is a fierce defender of Hemingway’s legacy and his boat, so I was pleased that she gave me permission a few years ago to climb aboard Pilar and snoop around—something not allowed to the general public. Fuentes had just died a few years earlier at age 104—one of those durable characters who was able to enjoy a cigar and a shot of rum right up until the end of his life.

Alfonso tells me that the old man was a regular visitor to Pilar. “Not a day goes by that I do not think of him and our time together on that old black boat,” Alfonso quoted Fuentes as saying. That sentiment will surely form the emotional core of the Hopkins-Fuentes film. And if you think Hopkins at 5 feet 8 inches is an odd choice to play the 6-foot tall Hemingway, consider this. Movie Pilar is 4 feet shorter than Pilar herself, so the actor will be pretty much to scale.