F0R WHOM THE BOAT CALLS
Classic Boat|January 2021
A replica of Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar has put to sea and will soon enter line production, bringing a legend back to life
BRUNO CIANCI

‘Family means a lot to me and this boat brings back to life what my ancestors did.’ Wes Wheeler, New York born in 1956 and now a leading manager in the pharmaceutical industry is talking about the passion behind his latest entrepreneurial venture: to build and market a boat based on the Playmate 38, a very successful motorboat produced in the 1930s by the shipyard founded by Howard E Wheeler, one of Wes’ ancestors. Specifically, the boat in question is a modern reinterpretation of the legendary Pilar, the fishing boat bought in 1934 by Ernest Hemingway. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize laureate was famously a great fishing enthusiast, and particularly active between Key West, the Bimini archipelago and Cuba.

A TRENDSETTER

Pilar was a particularly innovative boat. It is believed to have had the very first flybridge equipped with a wheelhouse and the first outriggers, features now standard on all such boats. Not only did Pilar outperform most of the peers, but in the 30 years the writer owned her, she survived four hurricanes, as much testimony to the solidity of build as to the courage and determination of her owner. Pilar was the first known boat capable of bringing a perfectly intact giant tuna to Bimini, thanks also to the fishing techniques introduced by the writer, which included the most rapid possible hoisting of fish on board, to stop predators eating the catch, a problem so tragically played out in Old Man and the Sea.

Named after Hemingway’s second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, nicknamed Pilar (also the name of a principal character in For Whom the Bell Tolls), the boat was a modified Playmate 38. The standard engine was a 70bhp six-cylinder Chrysler petrol engine powering the boat to an estimated 12-13 knots. Among Hemingway’s many modifications, besides the flybridge and outriggers, was a Lycoming engine better suited to trolling at three knots, oversized stowage and tanks, a live well, a transom mounted roller for hauling fish and a fighting chair in the cockpit.

During World War Two, the boat was even equipped with instruments and radios to transmit the position of German submarines, in the event of any sighting. But that’s another story. Today, Pilar is a museum boat at the former Hemingway mansion of Finca Vigia in the Cuban capital of Havana. It was eventually handed over to Gregorio Fuentes (1897-2002), the sailor who perhaps inspired the fictional figures of Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea, 1952) and Eddie (Islands in the Stream, 1970). The boat was then donated to the Cuban people, and finally to the government of Havana, by Fuentes himself.

TEAMWORK

The Hemingway story played an important role in Wes Wheeler’s decision to bring back to life this Playmate 38 and the family brand that had closed in the 1950s. What intrigued him more was the later. In just over four decades, the Wheeler shipyard had produced some 3,500 yachts, military boats, launches and skiffs; it was this reputation for quality that led Hemingway to turn to them to build the boat of his dreams. “Howard Wheeler was my great-grandfather” explains Wes, “while Wesley L Wheeler was his son, therefore my grandfather. He was the designer in the company in the 1930s and 40s, with the other brothers in finance and sales. Today, there is no other Wheeler involved in the new business besides my family and me, although my cousin Eugene, aka ‘Tut’, has provided some advice. In addition to ‘Tut’, my wife Marianne, designer Bill Prince, waterline designer Bruce

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